Today political discourse articulates between the opposing concepts of poiêsis, which refers to the production of an object or a work, and praxis, which entails an action with no other purpose than itself.
According to H. Arendt, modernism is dominated by the created work or object, particularly through an infinite manufacturing of items and tools, where the concealed processes of elaboration are considered a means to an end, the final product taking precedence:
The implements and tools of homo faber, from which the most fundamental experience of instrumentality arises, determine all work and fabrication. Here it is indeed true that the end justifies the means; it does more, it produces and organizes them. (…) During the work process, everything is judged in terms of suitability and usefulness for the desired end, and for nothing else.1
Meanwhile, all practices today have, in one way or another, to confront forms of storage of information provided by electronic technologies, which come to subtly change everything: recordings, disks, electronic memory… the fixity of electronic storage of information has the tendency to create a general reification of both works written on scores and ritualized actions fixed in the collective memory of the participants. A recording definitively fixes a particular moment, but in this very process of solidification of real life, less now than ever before may it pretend to represent the authentic tradition: at a certain moment certain individuals have done this, it is just one example among others of a type of practice. Moreover, the digitalization of memory allows very easily to pirate them and to modify them for one’s own benefit. Recordings fix real events, but they are precarious in their virtuality. In order to escape commoditization, there is no other choice than to use some cunning in making sure that each event would not be the simple exact repetition of a preceding version.
However these technologies also seriously undermine the claim to the exclusivity of traditions and, hence, their aura. They favor the differentiation of practices in all fields, and therefore return to the forefront the processing and collective nature of the praxis.
For Hannah Arendt, the term praxis is replaced by “action” most often related to “speech”. For her, the condition of the action depends upon a cooperative of at once equal and different human beings. In this sense, action and speech characterize political action in its highest form: acting together whilst recognizing our differences:
Action, as distinguished from fabrication, is never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act.2
H. Arendt compares the Greek and Roman systems of political interaction. In ancient Greece the laws have the function to allow the subsequent actions of the citizens, “not Athens, but the Athenians, were the polis. »3.
Modern society, more influenced by Rome than by Athens, has completely degraded action. And Arendt notes:
It was precisely these occupations – healing, flute-playing, play-acting – which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man.4
Rehabilitation of the praxis in the era of electronic globality returns the flutist to his place as actor of his own practice,5 , at play with the irresolute relations with others, the ephemeral character of actions, and unpredictable outcomes.6
Jean-Charles François – 2015
Translation by the author and Nancy François
1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago, London : The University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 153. Even though few references are made by the author to the terms poiêsis and praxis, her exposition, supporting three essential elements of the human condition, namely of work, created works and action, provides important keys to the understanding of what is at play in today’s world.
2. Hannah Arendt, op. cit., chapter V, « Action », p. 188.
3. Ibid., p.195.
4. Ibid., p.207.
5. See Marc’O, Théâtralité et Musique, Paris : Association S.T.A.R., 1994: “We have stated that, in a broad sense, the word actor relates more to a produced activity than to a social status (an identity). Ideally, the actor, author of his actions, is an author who verifies and acts. Through his actions, whether it be on the scene of work, social, family or otherwise – he tries to understand what he is lacking. Only action can bring him to understand this lack. And it is that upon which life is founded which he is lacking. All that he needs is to have aims in life and so fix goals. In this way he has a destiny, he contributes to cultural development. He makes history.” (page 86)
6. See Jean-Charles François, “Le Bèlè Martiniquais face aux héritiers de l’art autonome”, Les Périphériques vous parlent, N°36 Web, Paris, 2012. The practice of dance, poetry and traditional Bèlè music in Martinique is a living example of the idea of Praxis as it is defined in this text.