In the prologue to The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt expresses her concerns about the launch of the first man-made satellite—Sputnik—into space. Our excitement about this event “second in importance to no other”[i] was misplaced, she claims. Rather than men experiencing pride or awe at the tremendousness of human scientific advancement, we were roused by the prospect of taking the first step towards escaping our ‘imprisonment’ to the Earth.
If, in 1957, Sputnik was symbolic of our attempt at an upwards escape, then perhaps, in 2023, the much-discussed submarine Titan would be the equivalent of our attempt at a downwards escape. Titan was a submersible designed by a company called OceanGate, which offered pricy underwater tourist trips to the wreckage of the Titanic. On June 18, 2023, the CEO of OceanGate—Stockton Rush—manned Titan’s final expedition. The submarine became an international news headline when it was reported missing. Eventually, it was discovered that Titan had imploded. All five passengers inside it (each of whom paid $250,000 for a seat onboard) were presumed dead.
Perhaps our avid interest in Titan can be attributed to the ‘moment’ the ridiculously wealthy are having right now in modern culture: the most talked about show on television is HBO Max’s Succession (which is said to be loosely inspired by the story of Rupert Murdoch’s family and media empire); Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg are constantly analyzed and meme-ified; and all over social media platforms, there are calls to ‘eat the rich’ and tax billionaires.
I submit that a deeper explanation for worldwide attention to the sub may be found in Arendt’s claim that man is “possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere, which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”[ii] The desire motivating Sputnik and Titan is similar: the desire to challenge the limits of human possibility in a way that is potentially dangerous. We have set out to conquer the skies above us and the sea below us, even though neither of these environments is particularly conducive to the earthbound creatures we are.
However, temporally speaking, Sputnik was a push towards our future, while Titan was a descent into our past, a voyage to a shipwreck. Arendt describes a very different kind of descent into the ocean in her essay on Walter Benjamin and poetic thinking in Men in Dark Times:
“Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, [poetic] thinking delves into the depths of the past – but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages.
What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange.”[iii]
How should we interpret this beautiful passage? I believe that Arendt uses the metaphor of the ‘pearl diver’ to make the point that our relationship to the artifacts of history is complicated: our aim should be to re-examine old, sometimes strange, overlooked things and events in new and original ways in light of the dual processes of decay and crystallization they have undergone. History is living and breathing; everything that sinks into its depths is dynamic. History is also fractured (a fact which is largely attributed to the connected threads of tradition, authority, and religion breaking down in modern times). So, ultimately, it is up to the interpreters of history to decide which fragments are worth ‘prying loose,’ and which will give us fresh insights about the present without reviving the past.
Submarine Titan’s ‘pilgrimage’ to the Titanic seems to encompass the very opposite of the practice of ‘pearl diving’ as Arendt described it: the whole goal of such a trip was to visit what might be called a watery graveyard; the analyzed-to-death remains of a historically sensational artifact. Perhaps Titanic scholars would say otherwise, but there is very little ‘rich and strange’ information that Rush and the others on ‘tin-can’ Titan could have brought back for us to chew on. Indeed, Titan’s implosion seems to warn against the dangers of uncritical ‘pearl diving’: in an obsessive haste to uncover our past, we can sink our present.
The reaction to news about Titan around the world was quite mixed. Some awaited updates on the search and rescue mission (while one was still ongoing) with bated breath and prayed for the safety of the adventurers, who, they claimed, had committed no crime by embarking on a brave quest in the applaudable spirit of human discovery and exploration. Others turned the incident into a joke and laughed at the situation, with some going so far as to suggest that Rush and the others deserved their fate owing to their stupidity for being willing to make such a perilous journey. Still others pointed out that while our collective sympathy, time, and resources were extended towards the effort to save the affluent men in the submarine, we failed to care nearly as much about the migrant boat that broke down off the coast of Greece just four days earlier.
What the discourse surrounding the sub incident makes clearer than ever is that we lack ways of talking about issues in public spaces that do justice to nuance, plurality—and though Arendt would not have liked this third feature—compassion. Arendt famously feared the entry of compassion and its perversion, pity, into politics, believing that the (often religiously motivated) emotional force of these features would crowd out the possibility of speech and persuasion—which were crucial for the political realm—in favor of violence. She thought a better political alternative to either compassion or pity might be solidarity, which is based on a dispassionate respect for common interests that cuts against considerations of class.
Arendt may have written off the value of compassion in political settings too quickly. In the case of the sub story, it may be easier for me to feel ‘touched in the flesh’ by the very real suffering and objectively awful death the individual passengers (one of whom was a teenage boy!) experienced than to express solidarity with them. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of having respect or a ‘common interest’ with or for men who used their deep pockets to engage in unethical deep-sea exploration to the detriment of the environment and to their own lives. In addition, the absurdity of the situation only further serves to alienate me from the men involved: the average person would never be able to imagine themselves making the choices that these men made, given the information they had beforehand regarding the very preventable possibility of misfortune and disaster. At the very least, it seems reasonable to say the possibility of real solidarity with such a group of men is unlikely at best, owing to the lack of a communal principle: dignity, honor, or even greatness—to aid in a shared bond, especially when they were the farthest thing from ‘oppressed’ or ‘exploited.’
It seems pertinent to ask here how we could possibly feel any kind of solidarity with the men in the sub anyways—if we could barely manage genuine solidarity with the actual class of oppressed and exploited people in the Messenia migrant boat? Our reduction of migrant suffering to an argumentative tool to be pulled out conveniently in the discussion of Titan’s implosion has a poisonously performative edge. In On Revolution, Arendt decries our obsession with hypocrisy, noting that “the hunt for hypocrites is boundless and can produce nothing but demoralization.”[iv] So, it is modern politics that has become plagued with ‘what about-ism,’ a common tactic employed to virtue signal to others that we care about the ‘right kinds of issues,’ even if we never actually act beyond participating in ideological battles online. All we care about is a never-ending unmasking of the other that destroys our trust in ourselves and in others.
So, what if anything, should we make of all this? Our ‘emotional economy’ seems bankrupt, as it were. We have neither the energy nor the attention span to carefully unravel the complexities of either Titan or the migrant crisis. We no longer value recklessness, whether it be in pursuit of escapist fantasy or hope of a better life. We find it harder and harder to tether ourselves to the realities of our existence on Earth, and so we turn to darker and darker humor to make sense of the strange events that punctuate the time in which we live. This may not necessarily be a bad thing. After all, Arendt herself laughed (despite receiving much criticism for admitting this) at many points during the trial of former Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.
The best recourse we may have is Arendt’s directive to ‘think what we are doing,’ which is just as relevant now as it was during the time of Sputnik. In an age when our technological capabilities exceed our wildest dreams, we have a responsibility to recognize the unpredictable consequences of our actions and our speech. When we flout this responsibility, we turn our backs on each other and on the lessons that history can teach us.
[i] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 1.
[ii] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 2-3.
[iii] Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin,” Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993), 205-206.
[iv] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 87.