Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.
The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.
Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?
“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”
Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?
““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”
Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:
“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”
It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:
“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.
Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.
There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:
“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”
As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.
The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.
Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.
“Arendt on Narrative Theory and Practice”
Allen Speight, College Literature, Volume 38, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 115-130
Allen Speight, Director, Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University, argues for Arendt’s place among theorists of narrative such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Talyor, and Paul Ricouer. While he does indicate contemporary questions in both the Anglo-American and continental traditions throughout the article, he delivers particularly rich insights into Arendt’s engagement with three canonical thinkers. Specifically, he highlights aspects of Arendt’s use of conceptions of narration in developing her ideas of action in The Human Condition. In each aspect, he sees Arendt drawing on a specific philosophical precursor—Aristotle, Hegel, and Augustine in turn—but also diverging from them.
In relation to Aristotle, Speight focuses on how action reveals the “who,” how the actor emerges not from his intention but from his impact on the world. As does Aristotle, Arendt places a strong focus on drama. Aristotle and Arendt both hold that “dramatic actions” allow us to “construe what sort of a character an agent has.” However, rather than focusing on the reception of the audience, Arendt links the spectator to the actor. Indeed, expanding from Speight’s interpretation, we might say Arendt opens another center in the actor himself with her idea of the daimon, who watches over one’s shoulder.
From Hegel, Speight sees Arendt picking up on the tragic nature of action and how this leads to a need for forgiveness. The agent will not get what he wants and indeed often perish due to effects that he cannot foresee. Speight makes a striking link to Hegel here:
“A stone thrown is the devil’s,” Hegel liked to say: action by its nature is not something construable in given terms but is a kind of “stepping-forth” or opening up of the unexpected and unpredictable (Elements of the Philosophy of Right.) The classic, tragic examples of action in its openness—Antigone’s deed, for example, which both Hegel and Arendt were drawn to—present in an intensified way what is an underlying condition within ordinary action, one requiring the need for some means of reconciliation.
With the line “A stone thrown is the devil’s,” Hegel lets the personified evil step in as a kind of holding place that opens the question of how the effect of action will change the actor. Unlike Hegel though, the ultimate judge is not institutionalized world history, but the world as the space in which the who is revealed.
Stepping back chronologically, Speight then turns to Augustine as a source of Arendt’s idea of narrative rebirth. Here he picks up on an existentialist debate through Sartre: given that one’s account of one’s life can change it fundamentally, do we have a responsibility to an authentic narration? To what extent are we free when we tell our own stories? Arendt rejects the possibility that a life can simply me “made” in narrative. However:
for Arendt the distinction between a life that is “lived” and a story that is “made” involves two distinctly non-Sartrean consequences. The first we have already seen in her “daimõn thesis”: that precisely because we live rather than make a life, there is a privileged—but (pace Sartre) a not necessarily false—retrospective position from which we must view the “who,“ the daimõn, that is revealed in our lives. Thus, as we have seen, the “who” is visible “ex post facto through action and speech” (Arendt 1958, 186) and this retrospectivity in turn privileges the work of the discerning interpretive historian or storyteller. (121)
I find Speight’s repeated discussion of the daimon particularly relevant, since it offers an original way to talk about the belatedness of knowledge, of how it can comes later, or even from the side, without privileging an end position as Hegel does.
In the second half of his article, Speight offers a reading of Men in Dark Times that illustrates how Arendt uses these three aspects of her narrative theory in her own practice of narration. His reading the sections on Jaspers and Waldemar Gurian explicitly link the question of the daimon, biography, and how a person come to appearance in the public realm. Readers following the growing subsection of Arendt scholarship engaged with Arendt’s literary dimension will find an original effort here that offers a model for future work connecting Arendt’s theoretical articulations with her writing practice.
In a short entry in her Denktagebuch from 1956, Arendt offers a gnomic reflection on Antigone:
Ad Orff, Antigone: Als sei alles darauf angelegt, uns zum Ertönen zu bringen. Wir aber verschliessen uns, verstummen und klagen nicht. Antigone- die klagende, tönende menschliche Stimme, in der alles offenbar wird.
Ad Orff, Antigone: As if all was set out to bring us to sound. But we lock up, fall silent, and do not lament. Antigone – the lamenting, sounding human voice, in which all becomes revealed. (Notebook XXII, February 1956, Denktagebuch)
The entry first caught my attention because while Arendt often refers to literature (favorite authors include Kafka and Rilke), she rarely refers to specific musical pieces in her published work. Here she reacts to the opera Antigonae by Carl Orff.
Orff had composed for the Nazis, who received his Carmina Burana with incredible adulation, and underwent denazification after the war. Antigonae of 1949 is a minimalist work, first in the everyday sense that it sets Hölderlin's translation of the drama to song with little instrumental accompaniment. In this regard it highlights the translation's inherent musicality on the level of form (rhythms and rhymes in the text) and content (we see how at a number of moments the drama turns on references to singing, crying, tone, and lament). Orff's opera can also be described as minimalist in the more precise sense that when the orchestra does emerge, it often plays looping interludes that remind one of the repetitive avant-garde phrasings that Steve Reich would popularize in the 1960s.
Arendt often turns to art as a free space in which to voice philosophical and political questions in the modern age. Readers compelled by her approach might be inspired by the entry on Orff to look for other passages addressing music that would compliment her better known aesthetic analyses.
At a local level, the entry also raises a question: how would Arendt read Sophocles's Antigone? Patchen Markell offers one suggestion when he links Sophocles and Arendt in a “countertradition of thought about recognition” in his book Bound by Recognition. Markell casts a skeptical eye on the equation of identity and justice and offers an alternative mapping which is open to asymmetry and values finitude. In doing so he suggests a possible approach to this entry that notices the uncanny relation of the “we” and Antigone through the instrument of the voice.
The first line of the entry starts with the “we”– presumably the spectators of the opera and perhaps humanity more broadly – and centers on the German term “Ertönen,” which could be translated as “to ring out,” “to sound,” “resound,” or “chime.” It indicates expression, and even a move to freedom. In the next sentence though, this potential for liberation evaporates and “we” fall silent. It ultimately fails at the possibility, even apparent necessity of “klagen,” a term which contains the powerful double meaning of 1) “moan,” “lament,” “wail,” and 2) “litigate,” “file a suit,” “go to law.” Unlike us, Antigone's voice does ring out, she does lament, and in her lament she takes on the law.
Arendt describes Antigone's voice as the “human voice,” but her description leads us to think in the direction of the questioning of the essence of the human in first stasimon (often referred to as the “ode to man”). Roger Berkowitz connects the deinon (wondrous / terrible) in this ode to Arendt's concern over the “danger that we might so fully create and make our artificial world that we endanger that quality of human life which is subject to fate, nature, and chance” in his article in The Fortnightly Review.
In terms of the question of recognition, Arendt's note on Orff draws our attention to those sections of the drama where Antigone pushes against the inhuman, such as when the guard describes her shriek at the sight of her brother's unburried body as “a distressing painful cry, just like a bird/ who’s seen an empty nest, its fledglings gone.” Later, she sings a long lament to her tomb and dead family, as if those who remain alive are nothing to her. The minimalist loops of Orff's music might indicate something of the energy that insists on living when one has nothing to live for or is even condemned to death. These sections are strikingly different from the over-the-top triumphalism of Carmina Burana, which hounds popular culture in movies and commercials to this day. They suggest persistence rather than victory, or perhaps even a paradoxical continuation in an explicit condition of defeat.
Antigone is the voice, Arendt tells us. We seem to recognize it as our own, even if the total meaning of the “all” that would be the content of our realization remains out of reach.
"While lack of political sense and persistence in the obsolete system of making charity the basis of national unity have prevented the Jewish people from taking a positive part in the political life of our day, these very qualities, translated into dramatic forms, have inspired one of the most singular products of modern art—the films of Charlie Chaplin. In Chaplin the most unpopular people in the world inspired what was long the most popular of contemporary figures—not because he was a modern Merry Andrew, but because he represented the revival of a quality long thought to have been killed by a century of class conflict, namely, the entrancing charm of the little people."
-Hannah Arendt, "The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition" (1944)
The image of Charlie Chaplin's signature character, the Little Tramp, is an icon recognized throughout the world, one that remains powerful where those of his contemporaries, for example his partners in United Artists, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., have faded from popular consciousness. Moreover, Chaplin is widely recognized for his comedic brilliance, and beyond that, for his artistic genius as an actor, director and composer. Largely forgotten within the public mind, however, is the close association between Chaplin and Jewish identity, regarding both the actor and the character he portrayed. But to early 20th century audiences in the United States and Europe, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, the Little Tramp was recognized as a Jewish character type, a popular culture stereotype with origins in the 19th century, a by-product of the Industrial Revolution and (dare I say it?) modern times. Regarding himself, Chaplin never corrected misconceptions about his gentile ancestry, saying that to do so would "play directly into the hands of anti-Semites," while also taking pride in the fact that one of his great grandmothers was a Romani (aka Gypsy), and more generally he was outspoken in defense of all of the little people, the lower classes, the poor and the downtrodden. On the big screen, he was the Little Tramp, but in real life, as a human person and a champion of the humane and the humanistic, he was a giant.
Hannah Arendt identifies Chaplin's Little Tramp as something more than a Merry Andrew or clown, but as an example of a specific character type she refers to as the Jew as pariah. The term pariah is typically defined as outcast, which carries a more negative connotation than that of exile. Exile, in turn, is a status long associated with the Jewish people in particular, but today incorporated into the broader, and more neutral category of diaspora. As a wanderer,sojourner, or immigrant, the outcast becomes the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner, thealien, and also the barbarian (in ancient Greece, barbaros referred to anyone who was not Greek, not a citizen); in philosophical terms, the outcast is the other. The outcast is also theout-caste, the individual who is not a part of the existing social structure, who has no status or position, who is stateless or homeless, or jobless. The myth of the nation is one of blood ties, of an extended conception of kinship, of tribalism writ large. Against such cultural foundations, political reformation derived from Enlightenment rationality provided thin cover indeed. And it is in this context that the unique nature of the American experiment stands out, and I find it interesting at this juncture to juxtapose the words of another Jewish woman, one who was a native New Yorker of the 19th century:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
This famous poem is "The New Colossus," written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, as part of a campaign to raise money to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, and later added to the site of the monument (with the effect of permanently changing the meaning of the monument from its original intent as a political statement). Lazarus, a poetic protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson, had awakened from her comfortable middle class youth to a profound social consciousness as she watched the influx of European immigrants to the twin cities of New York and Brooklyn, and in particular was moved by the arrival of vast numbers of European Jews seeking to escape the persecution and pogroms that accompanied their pariah status, becoming a proto-Zionist in her own right.
Arendt may well have viewed Lazarus as idealistic, perhaps even politically naïve, but of course it was in the United States that Arendt found a safe haven from Nazi persecution, and it was here that she made her home, just as it was the nation that welcomed Charlie Chaplin as an English immigrant, where he found opportunity for advancement and success, becoming a Hollywood star and also an entrepreneur, as a partner in the founding of the United Artists film company. This is not to deny the fact that Chaplin was also a victim of McCarthyism, finding himself exiled from the United States in 1952 on account of his politics, and settled in Switzerland, nor is it meant to discount the fact that Arendt was one of the lucky few to be permitted entry, whereas the vast majority of European Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust were not allowed to emigrate to the US. And there certainly is no denying the multitude of social ills that have existed and persisted in American society. But I would say that it is here in the United States that pariahs have come to find parity, and I would go so far as to say that this nation is truly exceptional in that regard.
Click here to read "The Cinematic Jew as Pariah in its entirety.