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The Human Condition: The Private and Public Realm. Part 1
The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt - Book Overview and Thoughts
Hannah mentions three fundamental aspects of the vita activa that define human existence: labor, work and action.
Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, that is, survival. Work, on the other hand, is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, and it creates the “artificial world,” the things in this world that do not decay and are not bound to the vital necessities of life.
Action is the only activity that happens between men without any intermediary of things or matter, and it is the highest realization of the vita activa.
"Vita activa" and "bios politikos" were essentially synonymous, both referring to a way of life centered around activities required to establish and maintain a public and political realm, but now, the term vita activa lost its political and public meaning and came to denote any type of active engagement. In other words, all activities were now considered needs of existence.
Action and collective existence led to an early translation of Aristotle's concept of the "political animal" as a "social animal." This translation blurred the boundaries between the political and social realms and eventually led to the loss of the original Greek idea of politics.
The Greeks regarded the natural interaction among beings as a common characteristic of the animal kingdom. Human social interaction was perceived as a limitation imposed by biological needs, common to both humans and other forms of animal life.
For the ancient Greeks the only two things that were truly political and important were action and speech.
The Greeks clearly distinguished between their private and public lives. In modernity, these two realms are entangled in the form of the social sphere, where “political economy” becomes collective families that should be taken care of by a nation itself. This is a contradiction in Greek thought, since nothing related to survival could be translated into the polis. Survival and necessity were non-political.
Conformism is the foundation of modern economics, which assumes that men do not act with regard for one another and operate just for self-interest and the desire to obtain more. Modern economics can only function if men are social beings with predictable behavioral tendencies. It aims at reducing complex human behavior to predictable patterns.
Hannah makes the distinction between wealth and property that existed in the ancient times, and how it is often seen as the same in our modern world. In ancient times, property wasn't simply owning physical assets, it was deeply connected with an individual's role in society and their sense of belonging to a community. Wealth, on the other hand, was often measured by the number of laborers one owned. These laborers could potentially free you from the necessities of life. This means that wealth was about having control over the means to sustain oneself, and not about the accumulation of excess as we have today.
Society's intrusion into the private realm took various forms, including expropriation, where property was taken away, and a gradual erosion of the private realm appeared. While socialism or communism might seem to offer solutions by redistributing resources, these ideologies, even when their aim is to provide resources more equitably, can transform the issue into a social concern. This transformation often prompts criticism of capitalism as well since it places property at the center of wealth accumulation rather than viewing it primarily as a necessity for individuals.
Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher known for her studies on totalitarianism, action, work and labor.
Today we will focus on her work The Human Condition, which I would like to divide in two or three parts since it is a very lengthy book that requires a significant amount of time to explain and grasp.
To begin, Hannah starts her text with the description of the launch of Sputnik in 1997. She refers to it as a trump of human technology but she also emphasizes how by realizing this dream we have shaped our own condition, making us beings that are no longer bound to earth and defined by it.
Now, Hannah says that the human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal environments, but life itself is outside of the artificial world. She argues that the aim to achieve an artificial man that goes beyond human existence, is undeniably possible. However, the question must be if we want to use all our scientific knowledge to achieve this, and that the real question should be a political one, rather than a question answered by scientists.
All these achievements in natural sciences are a crisis for Hannah. She argues that the “truths” from science and technological advancement can become meaningless to us because they can become inexpressible in speech and thought. For Hannah, speech and thought are very important, because they are the ways to express and when we try to go beyond our earthbound creature nature, we may be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do.
To put it another way, our brains, which constitute the physical part of our thoughts, would not be able to follow what we do, so that from now on, we would become dependent on the artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking. Making us creatures at the mercy of every gadget that we have created.
The important part of all this is that Hannah wants us to understand that through technology we can alter the world and environment we live in, and because that environment and that world conditions us, the technology we employ, in a sense, also conditions us and we aren't always aware of how that plays out.
Moreover, she emphasizes that speech is what makes mankind a political being. If we were to adapt ourselves to technology, we would arrive at a stage where speech is meaningless. The ideas and concepts can begin to be so complex that we are unable to transfer them back to speech.
For instance, think about our current technologies; how blockchain technology, the algorithms, AI, and even basically the economy becomes so complex that it is almost impossible to communicate between human beings about what is going on.
In a sense, our environment surpasses human intelligence, making us dependent on machines to communicate. This is a very important issue for Hannah, since men can only make sense of his world only to the extent that it can be spoken about.
Moving forward, Hannah talks about automation and how, from the time of writing, it would liberate humans from the burden of labor and necessity, and therefore, put the human condition at stake.
However, and this topic of labor will be further discussed in this newsletter, Hannah emphasizes that in the modern age we have a glorification of labor that has resulted in the transformation of the whole society. We have become a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the burden of labor, creating a society that doesn’t know any other higher or meaningful activities for the sake for which this freedom would deserve to be won.
Now, this will all make sense in some minutes when we discuss the difference between labor and work, as well as what action is for her. But, in the meantime, for Hannah, nothing can be worse than a society of laborers getting liberated from labor, because it means putting their very definition at stake.
The Human Condition
Hannah starts this chapter by mentioning three fundamental aspects of the vita activa that define human existence: labor, work and action.
She refers to labor as the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, that is, survival. Work, on the other hand, is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence. It creates the “artificial world,” the things in this world that do not decay and are not bound to the vital necessities of life.
Finally, action for Hannah is the only activity that happens between men without any intermediary of things or matter, and it is the highest realization of the vita activa.
Now, all these three categories constitute, again, human existence, which is defined by natality, death and mortality. Labor is the survival of the individual and the species. Work constitutes the permanence and durability of our mortality in this world. And action creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history.
Furthermore, Hannah claims that the human condition involves being constantly conditioned by our environment, both human made and natural. This is very important, because the human condition isn’t the same as human nature.
In fact, Hannah stresses that the problem with defining human nature is that it is unanswerable in both its psychological and philosophical sense, and the reason for this is that we cannot determine our own very nature the same way we do for other things. In other words, if we do have some nature, then surely only an external entity with consciousness can determine it.
Moving forward, Hannah mentions the term vita activa and how it has evolved through time. She argues that the term is very old and that it grew out of a specific historical event: the trial of Socrates.
This trial is very important for history and mankind because it marks the end of some harmony, namely the harmony between the philosopher and the polis. Socrates was accused of impiety, that is, of disrespecting the gods of Athens, and corrupting the youth of the city with his philosophical ideas.
In other words, the conflict between Socrates and the city-state is a critical episode in the history of political thought. It underscores the tension between individual philosophical inquiry and the demands of the political community, which attempted conformity and adherence to its religious norms.
Moreover, in the context of the Socrates' trial, the term vita activa, or bios politikos, takes on a specific meaning. Aristotle distinguished three ways of life, bioi which is one that men could choose in freedom without being constrained to the necessities of life. It excluded all labor, which, as we will learn soon, was the way of life of a slave.
The other ways of life were considered good, unnecessary and not merely useful, but beautiful. He describes that there was a life devoted to the pleasures, a life devoted to the matters of the polis, and the life of a philosopher, devoted to contemplation and the inquiry of everything around them.
Furthermore, it is important to note, at this point, that Hannah argues that the term "vita activa" in medieval philosophy served as the standard translation for the Aristotelian concept of "bios politikos." This translation retained its original meaning: a life devoted to public-political matters.
To put it another way, "vita activa" and "bios politikos" were essentially synonymous, both referring to a way of life centered around activities required to establish and maintain a public and political realm.
Now, Hannah pays particular attention to the meaning and roots of words, as well as how they evolve over time, transforming our perception of things and, as a result, our worldviews. After the old city-state vanished, the term vita activa lost its political and public meaning and came to denote any type of active engagement in the things of this world. In other words, all activities were now considered needs of existence, leaving contemplation as the only true way of living.
Moreover, this meant that the men of thought and the men of action began to take different paths. One of the discoveries made by philosophers is that there are higher activities that men could do that did not involve the polis. For example, the differences between immortality and eternity.
Immortality, in the context of Greek understanding, represents the idea of enduring in time, enjoying a deathless life on Earth within the cyclical rhythms of nature. It is a concept deeply rooted in the Greek belief system, where nature was perceived as immortal, and the Olympian gods were perceived as eternal beings.
With this in mind, the main concern for them was the mortality of humanity while being surrounded by immortal, but not eternal things like nature, and, in general, the cosmos itself. However, mortals have some potential greatness, and it lies in their capacity to create enduring works, deeds and words, so that through them mortality can find its place within a cosmos full of immortality.
This means that, for the Greeks, those who prefer mortal things and are content with the pleasures nature gives them, live and die like animals, leaving this world like mortals without any trace of immortality behind.
Furthermore, Hannah claims that the distinction between the eternal and the immortal influenced the philosophical perspectives of the time. Philosophers debated whether pursuing immortality by worldly achievements and activities was pointless in the face of the eternal, which could only be experienced through contemplation. The collapse of the ancient city-state and the development of Christianity, which offered the promise of everlasting individual life, may have affected this shift in mentality, making immortality less relevant.
In other words, the important pursuit of immortality through works, deeds, and words has declined with time.
Ultimately, the main point is that Hannah emphasizes the ongoing tension between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, with the latter connected with the experience of the eternal, as opposed to the pursuit of immortality.
The Public and Private Realm
The "vita activa," which refers to human life as it involves actively doing things, emphasizes that all human activities are closely tied to the world of human-made things and other people, so, it never transcends.
In other words, human life, when we are actively engaged in doing something, always takes place within a world shaped by both people and the things they create. This world provides the setting for our actions and activities. For example, the objects we use, the land we cultivate, and the social organizations we establish are all part of this world.
Furthermore, all of our actions are influenced by the fact that we live together with others, but it is specifically "action" that sets us apart. Unlike labor, which doesn't necessarily require the presence of others, action is unique to humans and depends on the constant presence of other people. In other words, it’s something we can only fully grasp in a social context.
This deep link between action and collective existence led to an early translation of Aristotle's concept of the "political animal" as a "social animal." This translation, first found in Seneca and later acknowledged by Thomas Aquinas, emphasized the link between being political and being social, blurring the boundaries between the political and social realms and eventually leading to the loss of the original Greek idea of politics.
In addition to this, Hannah claims that the term "social" itself has Roman origins and lacks a direct equivalent in Greek thought. In Latin, the word "societas" had a more limited political meaning, signifying alliances formed for specific purposes. In other words, it indicated a form of collective action with specific objectives.
Furthermore, Aristotle's original Greek perspective on social and political life was complex. He, like other Greek thinkers such as Plato, recognized the importance of human interaction and social bonds.
However, they did not perceive this natural interaction as a uniquely political characteristic. Instead, it was regarded as a common characteristic of the animal kingdom. Human social interaction was perceived as a limitation imposed by biological needs, common to both humans and other forms of animal life.
To put it simply, Hannah wants us to understand that translation caused a shift in perception that eventually blurred the lines between the social and the political. The term “social” itself evolved, from one linked with specific political alliances to one signifying a universal human condition.
Moving forward, the Greeks believed that the way people organized themselves politically in a city-state was very different from their family life. They saw these as two separate things. So, a person had their private life at home with their family, and then they had another kind of life outside of it as members of the city-state. They called this second life, “bios politikos.”
With this in mind, ancient Greeks believed that only two things were truly political and important: action and speech. Everything else, like daily tasks, were considered less important.
All this meant that political life, meaning your life outside of your private one, was shaped by your ability to speak well. The right words, at the right time, were not just about conveying information but were seen as a form of action itself.
However, with time, action and speech became separate things in the city-state. Speech became more important, not as a way of responding to things but as a way to convince others. To be “political” meant that everything was solved through speech and not through forcing or using violence.
This is where things get interesting. In ancient Greece, violence and in general, forcing individuals by commands, were pre-political ways to deal with people that did not belong to the polis, that is, slaves and barbarians, which were part of the private life, that is, the household, and not part of the political one. This also meant that slaves did not have the faculty of speech just like a member of the city-state.
Furthermore, when comparing power dynamics between a family with those within the political realm, the great mistake in translating the Greek term "political" into the Latin word "social" becomes evident.
Even a tyrant's power was viewed as less "perfect" in Greece and throughout ancient times than the power of a household head. This was not because the household heads balanced the city's ruler, but because total and unquestioned power belonged to either the head of the home or the political realm. These two were just not the same.
Following this, we can see how the Greeks clearly distinguished between their private and public lives. Hannah further refers to our present era and how the political and social have become even more entangled in modernity.
Modernity, for Hannah, is characterized by the emergence of the social realm, which is neither public nor private. She argues that this has made us have a harder time differentiating between the private and the public, between activities related to the common, and those related to survival.
All this confusion makes us see people, and in general, communities, as entities that should be taken care of by a nation itself. She refers to this as the “social economy,” which is essentially a collective of families that are economically organized and are called a “society,” and their political form of organization is called “political economy.”
This is extremely important in her critique of modernity, because it is essentially a contradiction in Greek thought. Nothing that was related to survival could be translated into the polis, that is, the political realm, since survival is a non-political affair that belongs to the private realm of the household.
To begin to grasp this concept, we can start by saying that the city-state respected the boundaries of each citizen's property, not necessarily because they valued private property as we do today, but because owning a house was a requirement for participating in the city-state's activities. Even philosophers like Plato, who proposed radical ideas like the elimination of private property, still spoke with respect about the boundaries between properties and the protector of these boundaries.
Following that, the main characteristic of the household was that people lived together out of necessity. The household was the realm of survival, and it required the company of people to provide for the needs of the species, like food and shelter.
This meant that the only realm of freedom was political, and the only way to fully engage in it was to first master the necessities of life at home.
What’s more, as we all know, the way these necessities were being met was by using force and violence on slaves in order to justify this mastery. As a result, violence was permitted in the household.
All this led to the polis being a realm where everyone was equal and where the household was the center of inequality. Equality was not justice, as in modern times, it was the very essence of freedom, it meant being free from the inequality present in rulership and to move in a realm where neither rule nor being ruled existed.
This is why, according to Aristotle, "the good life" is only possible when you have mastered the necessities of life. It was good to the extent that you liberated yourself from the biological life process by mastering these necessities, that is, by being freed from labor, and by overcoming the innate urge of all living organisms for their own survival.
This was very important in ancient Greece, where no activity that was necessary for the necessities of life, that is, of making a living, was permitted to enter into the public realm.
Now, the problem with modernity is that in contrast with the ancient times where "privacy" was a lack of participation in the public realm and where living an entirely private life was not considered human, modernity’s privacy is different. It is not primarily seen as a state of deprivation but rather as a sphere of intimacy and individualism.
Furthermore, Hannah’s insights help us in understanding this transformation. She points out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau played a significant role in exploring and defining the concept of intimacy.
Rousseau's rebellion was aimed at society, with its rules and expectations, and how it had intruded upon the innermost regions of the human heart. He recognized the struggles faced by the modern individual, torn between the desire to conform to societal norms and the imperative to preserve personal autonomy.
In other words, he understood the tension that arises when individuals strive to preserve their authenticity in a world that demands conformity in order to achieve equality.
In modernity, the concept of privacy continues to evolve. It comprises a diverse range of personal experiences and interactions that were mostly unknown in earlier periods of human history. Modern privacy is distinguished by its ability to safeguard the private aspects of life, allowing for autonomy and self-expression within a social framework.
All of this means that the problem of modernity lies in the radical redefinition of privacy, which has shifted from a state of deprivation in ancient times to a domain of intimacy and individualism. As well as the definition of "equality," which encompasses the public rather than the private realm and redefines it from “family" to corresponding social groups that must conform to certain society regulations.
Moving forward, this conformism discourages individual action, since conformity aims to "normalize" individuals, discouraging spontaneous actions.
The emergence of mass society, or the social realm, signifies that social groups have been absorbed into a single overarching society, similar to how family units were absorbed earlier. This implies that society now encompasses and controls all members of a community with equal strength.
This control is due to the victory of society in the public realm, making distinction and difference private matters. Modern equality is different from the equality seen in ancient times, as we already discussed. In modern society, equality comes from conformity, where behavior replaces individual action as the primary mode of human interaction.
This conformism is the foundation of modern economics, which assumes that men do not act with regard for one another and operate just for self-interest and the desire to obtain more. Modern economics can only function if men are social beings with predictable behavioral tendencies. It aims at reducing complex human behavior to predictable patterns.
This assumption allows economics to become a scientific discipline, where statistics are used to predict patterns, which, in a sense, are useful when dealing with large numbers that require approximations.
However, as the population increases, the public realm of society takes prominence over the political one. The ancient Greeks understood that their city-state's emphasis on action and speech could only exist if the population remained small. Because of conformism and automatism in human affairs, large populations tend to tilt towards despotism.
Again, the challenge is that the more people who are subject to conformism, the less likely they are to tolerate unconventional behaviors and ideas, which are by definition, part of the complexity and diversity of human behavior.
Furthermore, if this wasn’t enough, Hannah claims that the clearest indication that society constitutes the public organization of the life process itself, is the fact that the social realm has transformed all communities into laborers. In other words, everyone has become that one activity necessary to sustain their lives. Modern society is the form of mutual dependence for the sake of life, where the activities connected to survival are permitted to appear in public.
This organizational principle of labor in the public realm gave rise to the division of labor, where one activity is divided in innumerable minute manipulations, which is different from specialization.
Now, remember that Hannah pays special attention to the meaning of words. With this in mind, she first says that “public” signifies that everything in the public realm can be observed and heard by everyone, and hence “appearance,” a shared common world, constitutes “reality.”
Moreover, she mentions that the passions of the heart, the intimate and private, are lost, unless we share them and make them appear in the public sphere. With this, she mentions that pain is highly private and almost impossible to communicate or transform into a public appearance. Pain is perhaps the only experience which we are unable to translate into the public sphere. It is, in other words, removed from the world of things that it cannot have any appearance at all.
This means that those things that cannot be in the presence of others are considered irrelevant, and automatically become a private matter. This ironically makes aspects of life that are considered irrelevant by the public realm have an extraordinary and infectious charm in the private.
One example Hannah gives of this is the French concept of "petit bonheur,” that refers to finding happiness and contentment in small insignificant things within one's own private space, like personal belongings. This focus on the small things signifies a shift away from the once great and glorious public realm. In a world dominated by rapid industrialization and the constant creation of new objects, the appreciation of small, enduring, and humane elements is portrayed as a form of beauty.
Second, she states that the "public" represents the world that all people share, as opposed to private ownership. She argues that what makes modern societies so difficult to manage is not the immense number of people, but the fact that the world they live in has lost its ability to unite them. That is exactly what Christianity, notably the works of Saint Augustine, aimed to achieve. The philosophy attempted to provide a bond for people who had lost their connection to the common world.
Now, Hannah touches on the topic of mortality again, claiming that the public realm and common world require permanence. The world must transcend the lifespans of individuals and be planned to endure for generations. Without this, there can be no politics or common world.
This, again, leads us to Hannah’s observation that in the modern age, there's a significant loss of authentic concern with immortality. This loss contributes to the decline of the public realm in contemporary society, as people are no longer concerned with the idea of leaving a lasting mark in society, and if there is, it is mostly driven by vanity.
This vanity, which is characteristic of modern society, was expressed by Adam Smith who mentioned that public admiration and monetary reward are of the same nature. This reduces admiration to something that can be consumed much like food fulfills hunger. However, this perspective implies that the reality of an individual's needs is determined by the urgency of those needs, which are subjective.
In Hannah’s analysis, this subjective evaluation of needs is contrasted with the objective reality of the public realm. She argues that public admiration cannot replace the shared space where different perspectives come together to create a common world. The public realm’s vitality and endurance depend on the ability of individuals to see sameness among diversity, where everyone is engaged with the same object. This diversity of perspectives, rather than the conformity of mass society, is what sustains the public realm.
However, when the commonality of objects is no longer discerned, when it can only be seen under one aspect and it is allowed to present itself from only one perspective, the common world disintegrates.
Furthermore, Hannah warns that this destruction can happen in conditions of radical isolation, as in tyrannies, or in mass society, where individuals behave as though they were members of one family, adopting singular perspectives.
In both cases, the public realm is undermined, and individuals become imprisoned in their subjectivity, unable to relate or engage in shared experiences.
All this means that the loss of concern for immortality reflects not just a change in personal priorities but also a shift in societal values, where the pursuit of subjective needs and vanity overshadow the importance of a common world.
One very important point Hannah makes is the distinction between wealth and property that existed in the ancient times, and how it is often seen as the same in our modern world.
In ancient times, property wasn't simply a matter of owning physical assets like land or real estate; it was deeply connected with an individual's role in society and their sense of belonging to a larger community. Property, as we already discussed, meant having a place in the world, a position within a community that constituted the public realm.
In this context, property wasn't just about ownership; it was also about one's identity and status within society. Wealth, on the other hand, was often measured by the number of laborers or slaves one owned. These laborers could potentially free you from the necessities of life, allowing you to engage in other pursuits.
This means that wealth was about having control over the means to sustain oneself, and not about the accumulation of excess resources in financial terms as we have today.
Now, as we see, as society emerged, property started to shift from being a personal matter to a public concern. It began to serve the accumulation of wealth rather than contributing to your personal identity.
The shift which occurred with the development of the social realm, enabled property-owner organizations to demand the protection of their wealth, but not to gain access to the public realm, but to accumulate even more wealth.
This change marked the emergence of the concept of "common wealth" that came from activities that were previously exclusive to individuals or families. That is, wealth passed to be a public concern, in the sense that it was now threatening the stability of private possessions as it spread into the public sphere.
This change created a paradox, since even though wealth became more of a public concern, it still, in some sense, remained private.
For instance, one of the ways we can see this paradox is that the government changed its roles. In earlier times, governments primarily served kings or rulers, while property was owned by subjects.
However, as common wealth became a more prominent concept, governments started to play a role in protecting the interests of property owners. In other words, the government started to be responsible for protecting people's wealth, since the only thing that people have in common now is their private interests.
The shift also changed how property was perceived. Initially, property was seen as something fixed in the world. But with this change, property became more linked to the individuals themselves, particularly in terms of their ability to work, which is often referred to as "labor-power."
To fully comprehend Hannah's points in this context, it's crucial to grasp the distinctions between the public and the private realms and recognize that the concept of the "social" is a modern development.
She emphasizes that the four walls of one's private property serve as a dependable refuge from the public sphere. Privacy not only protects individuals from the events of the public world but also protects them from its very public nature. Privacy, in this sense, is fundamental for achieving depth and meaning in one's existence, and it is essential to differentiate it from wealth.
To put it differently, society's intrusion into privacy took various forms, including expropriation, where property was taken away, and a gradual erosion of the private realm appeared. While socialism or communism might seem to offer solutions by redistributing resources, these ideologies, even when their aim is to provide resources more equitably, can transform the issue into a social concern. This transformation often prompts criticism of capitalism as well since it places property at the center of wealth accumulation rather than viewing it primarily as a necessity for individuals.
Finally, to conclude this part of the book. Hannah touches the topic of “goodness.” She argues that the concept itself is strictly private. This is because once a good act becomes public, it loses its character of goodness, that is, of being done for nothing for goodness’ sake. Something good in the public realm is seen as an act of solidarity or charity, but never as an act that is good on its own.
This concept of goodness is mainly religious, and comes from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. He believed that no man can be truly good, and that only God can be.
The main point of this part of the chapter is that goodness is a non-human concept, because the genuinely good act is forgotten instantly, as it never forms part of the public world.
One good political way to understand this is with Machiavelli, who argued that both goodness and badness must remain hidden, as they can disrupt the common world. He claimed that “badness” destroys, and “goodness” corrupts on its own terms and carries its own corruption wherever it goes.
This corruption is mainly rooted in the belief of excessive adherence to moral principles, which while virtuous in personal life, can be detrimental in the public realm.
This last analysis on goodness is just an invitation from Hannah that raises questions on how political communities determine which activities of the vita activa should be shown in public and which should remain private.
This leads us to the end of this discussion where we talked about the first two chapters of the book, as well as the introduction. In the following newsletter, we will talk about the concepts of labor, work, and action as they relate to Hannah's understanding of the human condition. But, for the time being, the categories of public and private can help us in understanding the roots of her thoughts, which will eventually help us understand the distinction between labor, work, and action.
Arendt, H. The Human Condition (2018th ed.). University of Chicago Press.
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