Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

A Politics of Appearances

“To be alive means to live in a world that preceded one’s own arrival and will survive one’s own departure. On this level of sheer being alive, appearance and disappearance, as they follow upon each other, are the primordial events, which as such mark out time, the time span between birth and death.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

I credit my undergraduate advisor, the late Kenneth Reshaur, for one of my obsessions: I refer to the crack in the spine, between the Work and the Action chapters that divides my undergraduate copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. That fissure finds sustenance in the passage above, which appears at the very beginning of Arendt’s “Thinking” volume of  The Life of the Mind.

It is a telling quote for many reasons, not the least of which because in it, Arendt explicitly echoes Maurice Merleau Ponty’s treatment of “primordial perception” in some of his late writings on painting, but also because it testifies to Arendt’s relentless commitment to thinking as primordially bound to the phenomenality of life, and especially to the life of politics. Politics is, for Arendt, apparitional in nature. It regards the appearance of things, both human and inhuman. And to appear is also what it means to be alive. To be sure, for Arendt there is the fact of natality that regards a coming into life; but that differs from an appearance. Natality is of the order of the new; but an appearance persists regardless of its newness or oldness. We might say that an appearance is indifferent to qualities like newness or oldness. Hence Arendt’s emphasis on the sensoriality of appearances, their ingression, but also their departure. It is an unavoidable fact for her that peoples, things, events appear and disappear in the way in which the sound of a note or of a voice appears and then fades away; what Arendt appreciates about this primordial condition of sensoriality is that the appearance and disappearance of things marks a domain of sheer aliveness; “sheer” in the sense of not having qualifications or conditions for their bodying forth.

For Arendt, the sheerness of the apparitional world of politics means that appearances are not mere appearances. This fact marks, to my mind, her great friction with some aspects of the Platonic tradition from which she also draws. The aspectual alliteration of “sheer” and “mere” resonates with her emphasis on appearances as being a site of care. To be more precise, Arendt’s elaboration of a politics of appearances bespeaks a commitment to a curatorial disposition to the world that she associates with the ability to trust others to “tend and take care of a world of appearances” (The Crisis in Culture). To consider appearances as “mere” (as opposed to “sheer”) suggests a disregard for life itself, for the way in which, as she goes on to affirm a few paragraphs after the quote, “To be alive means to be possessed by an urge to self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness.” (The Life of Mind).

To be alive, in this sense, regards an urge to be felt, to be attended to by others. This is what the spectacle asks of the spectator: not so much “pay attention to me”, but “attend to what appears before you.” Such attention is what spurs on judgment, for Arendt, which is the activity sine qua non of “sharing-of-the-world-with-others” (Crisis in Culture). But before judgment may take place, before what captures our attentions can be morphed into thoughtful reflection, there is the sheerness of appearance that strikes at our curatorial dispositions.

And for Arendt, this primordial capacity to strike is disinterested.

What do I mean by this? Simply put, Arendt’s call to attend to the sheer appearance of the world forces us to come to terms with a domain of experience that precedes any and all capacities to formulate judgments, interests, and ideas: This is the primordial world of disinterest. And “disinterest” here does not mean either “indifferent” or “detached”; nor does this amount to a reassignment of the “Archimedean point.” On the contrary, the domain of disinterest is a domain of absorption and immersion in the facticity of lived sensations: it is the domain of the aesthetic that Arendt rightly identifies as the source of Kant’s political thought.

To recall, Kant’s crucial insight in the Critique of Judgment is that there can be no necessary conditions for something to count as beautiful, and hence there can be no rules for the category of the aesthetic. This is an insight that Kant borrows from Hume’s critique of consequentialism; but whereas for Hume, the heterogeneity that arises from the absence of necessity is a part of life, for Kant it is restricted to aesthetic experience as he defines it.

The aesthetic is the source of Kant’s political thought, then, not because the aesthetic provides normative guides to help us make judgments (it can’t), nor because there is anything specifically political about the beautiful (there can’t be because according to Kant aesthetic experience is disinterested in the sense of unqualifiable). Rather, the aesthetic is a source of political thinking, and political life in general, because it is only through aesthetic experience that one encounters a mode of valuing that is non-instrumental and not reducible to its use value. Indeed, aesthetic experience is that experience that annihilates our reliance on a sense of necessity; and it is precisely the annihilation of necessity – necessity being the concept that Arendt likens to the a-political qualities of the private and the social – which makes aesthetics and politics so intimately entangled for her.

Arendt’s politics of appearances, encapsulated in the quote from The Life of the Mind, thus speaks of the possibility of a life devoid of the force of necessity, and of things not having to go on as they have.

This is why she seems so resistant to the privative nature of the private, and the biologism of the social: what binds Arendt’s characterization of these entities (and I think it important to regard her use of these terms as characterizations and not descriptions), is their inexorable reliance on the force of necessity as sovereign.

For me, moreover, Arendt’s aesthetics of politics evokes the possibility of always having at one’s recourse the polemical claim that “this need not be”, that things need not continue in this way, that the continuity of any form of political subjectification is not necessary. This also means that the assembly of things – as they are at any one point in time – is not necessary in the manner in which an instrumental rationality demands that they must be. The possibility to admit of a resistance to necessity regards a curatorial disposition that attends to the sheer fact of appearance—of peoples, things, and events in the world. Such is the nature of Arendt’s politics of appearances.

-Davide Panagia


Childism, Chapter 2 – Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's final work, Childism, was published soon after her untimely passing in December of 2011. In the book, Young-Bruehl, a long time psychoanalyst and child advocate, focuses on the pervasive prejudice she feels overshadows many children in our society. Be it abuse, or the modern day phenomenon of helicopter-parenting, she felt these injustices served to demarcate children, marking them as less worthy than adults. The resulting consequences result in unhealthy and damaging parent-children relationships.

Arendt Center internAnastasia Blank, is reading Childism and providing us with a chapter by chapter review, highlighting some of the most interesting and compelling insights and arguments. Her first post  provided us with an overview of the book and its themes, and her second post last week, looked at the first chapter. Today, she shares her thoughts and impressions of Chapter 2. We hope you are inspired to read along. You can purchase the book here.

In the second chapter of Childism we are introduced to one of Young-Bruehl’s own patients, “Anna”, a victim of severe abuse throughout her childhood and adolescence. While at first this chapter appears as a gruesome telling of years of neglect and abuse—at points difficult to read—it raises two major questions.

First, how could this happen to a child?

Second, why did this happen to a child?

After reading this chapter I realized that I was not just reading Anna’s story, I was reading the reality that thousands of children are facing every day. So, I suggest, when you read this story, remember it is not just a retelling of one person’s life. It is a testimony for the developmental destruction that is taking place in the lives’ of too many children each day.

The haunting aspect of this chapter is not only the negativity and hurt that is inflicted upon Anna, but the normal appearance of the family that is presented. To any onlooker, Anna’s life would seem perfectly normal. She is a good student, her father is a doctor, and she is surrounded by siblings. What reason does one have to believe that Anna is not the child of a loving family? It appears that there was no such reason to believe anything to the contrary. If the image the family portrayed was so standard, then why was the reality so brutal?

Young-Bruehl argues that the perpetrators of childism in Anna's house are in a pursuit of lasting domination. One example is Anna’s father who refused to acknowledge the sexual abuse her stepbrother was inflicting on Anna. According to Young-Bruehl's account, this is because he wanted Anna to play the role of the “whore” he could control.  "When he rescued Anna with support for her education, for example, his unconscious design was for her not to grow up, she would have to remain under his direction." Anna’s father was certainly privy to her being abused, but he would not interfere, because doing so could mean he would lose her as an exploitable object. In allowing the abuse to go on, Anna would always need to be rescued. While he provided her with a home and a stellar education, he never helped her in the way she needed most; he reaped the benefit of her abuse.

This chapter provides an inside view into a home of abuse, and also reveals the inner-workings of a therapy that aims to heal the effects of the harm Anna suffered during her development. It is harrowing and yet fascinating to read about Anna’s father, mother, stepbrother, and stepmother and the individual motivations of each character that contributed to their childist tendencies. It is also thrilling to follow Young-Bruehl's efforts to find answers to what underlies and perpetuates such abuse.

When Anna meets Young-Bruehl, she is an adult, however her persona is much like that of a child. Anna is insecure, anxious, resentful, and speculative of those who show her affection. By telling Anna’s story as an adolescent, it becomes clear that many of the destructive themes throughout her childhood have stunted her development into a happy and confident adult. I would like to return to a question asked at the beginning of this post, “Why did this happen to a child?” and now ask, “Why is this happening to an adult?” The lack of conscience in the grown-ups in Anna’s life resulted in a hideous upbringing that Anna has never been able to shed. Here we begin to see what consequences childism breeds.

I wonder what type of parent Anna will become, or would have become had she not sought treatment. Can Anna be expected to love her children when she does not know what this love looks like? It seems tricky to expect warmth and care from an adult who lacked such experiences during development and continues to struggle to manifest such relationships as an adult. Anna embodies both the victim and a  perpetrator, for she endured abuse and is unable to move forward. Childism does not end when the child grows up, it persists.

What Young-Bruehl shows us is that children need love and support, but simply wanting to provide these things is not the same as actually demonstrating them. I do not doubt that most parents love their children, but many adults have disturbing matters in their life that need to be counterbalanced. A person needs to feel greater affection than abhorrence towards themselves and the world before they can take proper care of a child. Otherwise, the child’s life will be filled with more fear than love and that is not the proper balance.

Please feel free to respond to the questions asked in this post and join me for a reading of chapter three in the upcoming week.

-Anastasia Blank