How do we judge what is valuable?
I have been thinking a lot about value lately. How we value what it is we spend our time doing. How we measure the worth of our lives. This is probably because I recently left 14 years of undergraduate teaching to live on a Greek island in the middle of the Aegean and write my second book. But still, it is a question central to Hannah Arendt’s understanding of The Human Condition, and her distinctions have helped me understand how I think about value in my own life.
In Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition she draws a distinction between labor and work. Labor corresponds to the biological conditions of life itself, and work adds to the artifice of the world. As I always remind students, these are porous distinctions. But they matter because distinctions are conceptual banisters we reach for while judging.
In these two chapters on labor and work, Arendt offers readers three distinct forms of value, breaking with Karl Marx’s discussion of value in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and Capital where he discusses use value, commodity value, and Value. And whereas Marx approaches the question of labor and work from the subject position of the laborer and worker, Arendt approaches the question of labor and work from the position of the objects being produced.
Approaching the question of value from the position of the object, Arendt offers a different tripartite distinction of value in order to move toward a conception of worldly alienation, as opposed to Marx’s concept of social alienation. (If you want to read more about Arendt and Marx here’s a short piece from a while back.) For Arendt there is use value, consumptive value, and poetic value. Each of these forms of value has to do with the life-span of the object itself.
Objects of labor, like a loaf of bread, are meant to be eaten as quickly as they’re made. They are objects of consumption. Objects of work, like a table, are meant to be used over time. They will wear-out eventually, but chances are they will outlive the person who made them. And then there is poetic value, the product of artistic production, which adds to the durability of the world.
An artwork, like a poem, has a density and endurance that loaves of bread and tables do not. In one nearly untranslatable poem Arendt writes, Dicht verdicht das Gedicht. The first line offers the reader a sense of poetic intensification. Dicht means denseness, Verdichten means to condense, and Gedicht means poem. A literal translation might read: Density condenses the poem. But this does not capture the sense of thickness inherent in the poem itself, the idea that it is the dicht in Gedicht that makes the poem poetic and durable in the world.
Durability becomes the measure by which Arendt judges the value of an object.
This means the more useless and pointless the object is, instrumentally speaking, whether it is a painting or a poem, the greater poetic value it has. Poetic comes from the Greek poiesis, which means to make, to bring into existence something that did not exist before.
In order to make, we must stop thinking, and in order to think, we must recede from the world of appearances. For Arendt, poems occupy a distinct space between the invisible realm of the mind and the life of action in the world of appearances; they are the form closest to thinking itself.
Arendt was so concerned with value, because she saw how durability was being replaced by cheap, reproducible, consumer culture, where everything was of the moment. She argued that without durability we come to live in a world increasingly obsessed with usefulness and instrumentality, where everything must always be in the pursuit of some end. It has to be good for something.
Our question is no longer Kant’s What can I do? It is, How is this useful to me?
For Arendt this meant the world in modernity became a less durable, reliable place, and ultimately less meaningful. She wasn’t entirely hopeful that we could turn back from the tyranny of consumptive value, but she was certain that we needed durability in order to guarantee freedom.