“In contrast to the inorganic thereness of lifeless matter, living beings are not mere appearances. To be alive means to be possessed by an urge toward self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness. Living things make their appearance like actors on a stage set for them.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, vol. 1: Thinking
Political theorists are likely to associate the phrase the “urge to self-display” with a characteristically “Arendtian” politics. But here, Arendt takes self-display to characterize something much more basic and fundamental—the sheer life of human beings. Despite Arendt’s imagery of the actor appearing on a stage, self-display does not seem at all to invoke the greatness of individuality or of heroic deeds. It is merely the “fact of one’s own appearingness.” What could Arendt mean by characterizing human life by the fact of appearing, and what does it mean to say that human beings, as opposed to “lifeless matter” makes their appearance?
In The Life of the Mind, Arendt describes the phenomenon of appearing as human beings’ appearing to others in a way that is subject to the particular perspective of the spectator.
“To appear,” she writes, “always means to seem to others, and this seeming varies according to the standpoint and perspective of the spectator”. In this interpretation, the fact of appearingness is a fact of the world in which we live; it is the fact of plurality and the irreducibility of perspectives that signals that men, not Man, populate the world.
But the fact of appearance also has a moral and political significance that goes beyond this almost formal description of the dual position of subjectivity and objectivity that human beings occupy with respect to one another. If we turn to Origins of Totalitarianism, a text that is not often read in connection with The Life of the Mind, we are confronted with a striking and terrifying picture of the loss of appearingness, which confronts us fully with the implications of Arendt’s characterization of human beings as beings who must make their appearance.
In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt uses the term “rightlessness” to describe the condition of European Jews under the Third Reich. In that regime, Jews were not merely “deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion,” but made so irrelevant that “nobody wants even to oppress them”. The ultimate expression of invisibility was the genocide in the death camps of the Final Solution. However, the effectiveness of these camps in rendering people invisible did not lie simply in the physical destruction of millions. The camps sought to destroy what Arendt called the “moral man,” or that aspect of human beings that is subject to moral judgment and valuation. This term attaches not to moral behavior, but to the presence of individual human beings in the world that makes it possible to see them as individuals in the first place.
In the camps, the boundary between life and death and between individuals was so attenuated that it was nearly impossible to distinguish any one person from another, living or dead. The invisibility of individuals this lack of boundaries engendered was so thoroughgoing that it obscured even the most heroic of deaths: “[i]t belonged among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don’t permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr’s death for their convictions….The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity”. Even the most heroic of acts was disposed of simply and without regard or comment, just as those deaths that occurred daily, and both were made invisible along with the individuals in and through whom these deaths occurred.
The crucial point is not that death was made routine, but that the camps ensured that with these deaths any marker of the victim’s having ever been alive also disappeared along with him. The individual prisoner was barely distinguished from the others and seen only as one in a series in which his exact position was irrelevant. As a group, the prisoners were invisible to the world, and as individuals, they were invisible to the world and to one another as distinct people.
The result was an attenuation of the line that separates the lives of individuals as they have lived it from mere physical life and death and the elimination of the world as a stage on which individuals could make their appearance. And in the absence of this stage, death could be nothing more than a “seal on the fact that he had never really existed”.
Making one’s appearance in the world, as an actor does on a stage, is not about being extraordinary. Nor is it a merely formal description of how human beings perceive the world around them and are perceived by other human beings. Rather, appearingness is the essential condition of being recognized as a member of the community of human beings and the world and of being treated accordingly. As the events of the past century have made strikingly clear, appearingness is a condition that we could lose or of which we could be stripped. Our condition of humanity is something that we must create—create by making our appearance in the world. Arendt’s words about our basic condition of appearance alerts us to the dangers of invisibility and should make us suspicious of any situation in which people exist in a condition of invisibility.
In our own time, the Occupy Wall Street movement has helped to bring to light some of those who have been made invisible in poverty. This act of opening up a space in which an individual might make their appearance in the world is, I think, one of the movement’s greatest accomplishments. And a politics of visibility is not just about our own visibility or our own great accomplishments, but about creating stages upon which people can make their appearance and exposing and tearing down those scaffoldings that bar some from entering these stages.
If we see the OWS movement as a politics of appearance, then the albeit valid criticisms about the lack of a definite agenda and the like do seem to lose some of their force. But this does not mean that the movement is a success in Arendt’s terms. The movement has certainly brought us to the stage, but what we all—the invisible and the visible—do with this opening and how we make our appearance onto it remains the political question that only the individual actors, and not any movement, can and must answer.
What precisely do we mean when we use the term “genocide”? Has the word always been associated with the mass killing of individuals on the basis of their group affiliation? Or have there been alternative conceptions of genocide of which we should be aware?
These questions were at the heart of the Hannah Arendt Center’s latest Lunchtime Talk, which occurred amid picturesque snowfall on Wednesday, February 29th. The presenter was Douglas Irvin, a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers’ Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Irving's talk revolved around the work of the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959).
After escaping from Nazi-occupied Poland and lecturing at the University of Stockholm, Lemkin emigrated to the U.S., served as an advisor at the Nuremberg Trials, and played a central role in the passage of the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. Indeed, Lemkin was the first public figure to use the term “genocide,” which he derived from the Greek root genus (family, race, or tribe) and the Latin root, cide (killing).
Lemkin and Arendt were contemporaries with overlapping experiences and interests, but they engaged very little with one another in print (aside, perhaps, from a few allusions and anonymous criticisms). Irvin contends that there are good reasons for this lack of dialogue, since the two differed significantly in their views of genocide and humanity more broadly.
On the one hand, Arendt regarded genocide as a historically recent outgrowth of modern totalitarianism. According to Irvin, this understanding was in keeping with her more general conception of the human cosmos, which ultimately emerged through, and was grounded in, individual interactions within the arena of the polis.
Lemkin, by contrast, regarded genocide as a much older phenomenon, one that was premised not on the destruction of individuals on the basis of their group affiliation, but rather on the annihilation of entire cultural traditions and collective identities. Drawing eclectically on the work of seventeenth-century Spanish theologians, romantic thinkers like Johann Gottfried von Herder, and anthropological understandings of cultures as integrated wholes, Lemkin ultimately defined genocide as a coordinated attack on the conditions that make the lives of nations and other collectivities possible.
In this conception, genocide does not necessarily or inevitably entail the mass killing of a group’s members, but rather turns on concerted efforts to obliterate that group’s institutions, language, religious observance, and economic livelihood. In Irvin’s argument, this approach resonated with the broadly communitarian nature of Lemkin’s thought: human existence was in his estimation defined by interactions between culture-bearing groups, and human freedom could ultimately be secured through the benevolent recognition and protection of cultural pluralism.
Significantly, the U.N. Genocide Convention that Lemkin championed did not incorporate many aspects of his thinking. His ideas encountered strong resistance from the U.S., U.K., and other imperial powers, many of which feared that their treatment of indigenous and colonial populations would qualify as genocide under the standards that Lemkin (and his collaborators) proposed. As a result, our current understanding of genocide is in no small part a byproduct of a diplomatic battle to redefine this legal category in a fashion that would encompass the Nazi Holocaust but not implicate other states (including several of the Allied powers that fought against Germany in World War II). This wrangling has also contributed to the minimal attention that has since been paid to Lemkin’s ideas, which were only rediscovered in a significant way in the early 1990s.
Douglas Irvin’s stimulating talk suggested that such inattention is unfortunate. Whatever one thinks of Lemkin’s effort to inscribe a form of cultural relativity into liberal international law, a more thoughtful understanding of his life and thought can only enrich our understanding of genocide’s career as a concept.
Click here to watch the Douglas Irvin lunchtime talk.
The Constitutional Council, France’s highest court, will soon issue a ruling with significant implications for how we think about free speech, violence, and collective memory. The ruling, due by the end of February, will determine whether French lawmakers can criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Legislation to this effect passed the French National Assembly in December 2011 and the Senate just last month, but the Council agreed to rule on the constitutionality of the provision after inquiries from dozens of parliamentarians. President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated that he will sign the bill into law if and when it reaches his desk, but he cannot do so until the court announces its decision. The geopolitical implications of this ruling are potentially far-reaching, for it may decisively shape Turkey’s relationship with the European Union and other states in the Middle East. But the ruling’s cultural and philosophical ramifications are significant as well, for they raise important questions about public discourse and collective memory not simply within but also across national boundaries.
The bill that would criminalize Armenian genocide denial was introduced in the National Assembly by Valérie Boyer, a parliamentarian from Marseilles who is affiliated, like Sarkozy, with the center-right Union for a Popular Movement. It would require a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 Euros (approximately $59,000) for “those who have praised, denied, or roughly and publicly downplayed genocidal crimes, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.” Significantly, the legislation does not specifically mention the mass killings of Armenians, but the only other instance of genocide recognized by the French government is the Holocaust, and its denial is already defined as a criminal act under another law. Despite the bill’s generic formulation, then, its effective point of reference is rather targeted.
Members of the French opposition have charged that the bill constitutes a cynical effort to curry favor with the country’s sizable Armenian population in advance of this spring’s presidential elections. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, meanwhile, has opposed the legislation because he believes it will hinder efforts to maintain Turkish cooperation on urgent matters of state, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the ongoing government crackdown in Syria.
But the bill’s proponents deny that they have any ulterior motives in either the national or international arena: Boyer insists that genocide is a general human concern that stands “over and above politics,” while Sarkozy asserts that the bill is in “no way aimed at any state or people in particular.” In this respect, the legislation and its overt rationale are consistent with an important strand of the French republican tradition, one that equates the nation and polity with a commitment to universal principles.
Given the state’s ideological position, it should come as no surprise that Turkish responses to the legislation have been hostile. The national government, led by the center-right Justice and Development Party, has suspended many of Turkey’s diplomatic, economic, and military relations with France, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dismissed the bill as an instance of “evident discrimination, racism, and massacre of free speech.” In addition, Erdoğan has accused France of its own unacknowledged genocide during the era of colonial rule in Algeria, while other lawmakers have insisted that France has failed to confront its unseemly role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Far from regarding the legislation as a universalist condemnation of genocide and genocide denial, then, Turkish state officials have treated it as a direct attack on their national self-regard, and they have been quick to accuse the French government of a pernicious double standard: Sarkozy and his colleagues want Turkey to reckon with its burdened past when France has not scrutinized its own violent (post)colonial history.
On the one hand, I sympathize with the bill’s impulse to engage with past instances of violence. Remembrance of traumatic pasts is not a zero-sum game: attention to one instance of collective violence, such as the murder, deportation, and starvation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, does not prevent or preclude attention to others, such as the assault, torture, and killing that accompanied French colonial domination in Algeria. In fact, as Michael Rothberg suggests, the remembrance of past violence across national and/or imperial contexts “has the potential to create new forms of solidarity and new visions of justice.”
On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the premise that certain forms of public discourse, even those associated with the denial of genocide, should be prohibited by law. I am too committed to liberal thinking to believe that this kind of restriction on free public speech is acceptable, and I have my doubts that it will actually encourage a reasoned understanding—and condemnation—of collective violence in the past, present, and future.
In particular, I am very concerned that this legislation, if it indeed becomes law, will have a chilling effect on ongoing discussion and debate in Turkey.
Turkish state and public institutions have grown a bit more receptive to Kurdish grievances over the past decade, and in November 2011 Prime Minister Erdoğan took the remarkable step of apologizing for army and air force attacks that killed nearly 14,000 Kurds in Dersim (now known as Tunceli) from 1936 to 1939. To be sure, Erdoğan issued this apology as police and military personnel were detaining hundreds if not thousands of Kurdish activists in the state’s renewed counterinsurgency campaign. But we should not neglect the fact that such a pronouncement would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. How ready will Erdoğan’s government be to acknowledge other elements of Turkey’s fraught past if France criminalizes denial of the Armenian genocide? Not very, I suspect.
In the end, then, I support concerted public engagement with the nature and extent of the Armenian genocide in France, Turkey, and elsewhere. Precisely for this reason, however, I also oppose the criminalization of Armenian genocide denial.
For more discussion of the transnational politics of memory, I highly recommend Michael Rothberg’s book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in an Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2009).
- Jeff Jurgens
“There is hardly an aspect of contemporary history more irritating and mystifying than the fact that of all the great unsolved political questions of our century, it should have been this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Seventy years ago, on January 20, 1942, a group of leading Nazi officials met at a conference in a posh residence in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” the Nazi's euphemism for their planned physical extermination of the Jews. What was perhaps most startling about the meeting is that there was no real deliberation about whether such a policy should be carried out, but only how. No one objected to the program of mass extermination, which S.S. General Reinhard Heydrich announced as the Fuhrer’s command.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, her masterful exploration of the rise of Nazism, Hannah Arendt outlined the social and political factors that drove “the Jewish people into the storm center of events” and made “the Jewish question and antisemitism…the catalytic agent..for the rise of the Nazi movement,…for a World War of unparalleled ferocity, and finally for the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide in the midst of Occidental civilization.” (OT, with a new introduction by Samantha Power, 2004, p. 7) That “this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem…had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion” was, in her words, an “outrage [to] our common sense.” (OT, p. 11) Despite the outrage, Arendt took seriously the fact that antisemitism formed the core of Nazi ideology. She thought its widespread acceptance set the stage for the extermination of the Jews becoming the legitimated purpose of Nazi policy.
As she sought ways to understand the rise of antisemitism and its enshrinement at the core of Nazi ideology, Arendt rejected certain explanations, including the scapegoat theory. Not only refusing to accept the idea that the choice of victims was accidental or arbitrary, she also resisted explanations, such as “eternal antisemitism,” that absolved the Jewish people of any responsibility for the development of those disastrous circumstances in which they found themselves in the middle of Europe in the 1930s.
To Arendt, the idea of “eternal antisemitism” as an unbroken continuity of persecution of Jews beginning at the end of the Roman Empire and continuing into the twentieth century was a dangerous fallacy. To the question of why the Jews of all people were the target of such genocidal enmity the idea of eternal antisemitism offered what Arendt labeled the “question begging reply: Eternal hostility.” She would have none of it. “Comprehension,” Arendt wrote, “does not mean…deducing the unprecedented from precedents.” (OT, p. xxvi ) To interpret the virulent form of antisemitism at the core of Nazi ideology as only a more modern variant of “eternal antisemitism” would, she contended, inherently negate “the significance of human behavior” and “bear a terrible resemblance to those modern practices and forms of government which, by means of arbitrary terror, liquidate the very possibility of human activity.” (OT, p. 18.) Instead, she argued, we must bear consciously the burden that the horrific events of the twentieth century placed on us and examine the behavior of both the perpetrators and their chosen victims in historical perspective. (OT, p. 7.) And for the next several hundred pages of Origins, that is exactly what she set out to do.
It’s not so difficult to imagine that perpetrators of murderous crimes have the choice to behave differently and are responsible for their actions. In fact, we are used to accepting the reasoning that if someone’s actions cause another harm the one who did the harming is fully responsible for the damage done. So used to this logic, in fact, that we become reluctant to excuse the perpetrator simply because her life’s circumstances gave her few options, and especially not just because everyone around her was behaving equally badly. What’s harder to swallow is the notion that the actions or attitudes of the chosen victim might have contributed in any way to their initial selection. So if someone contests the victim’s absolute innocence we are likely to recoil in horror and accuse the person putting forth such an idea of blaming the victim.
When Arendt turned to Jewish history she found there “certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries” that, for her, contained “elementary clues to the growing hostility between certain groups of society and the Jews,” (OT, p. 19.) clues she thought Jews had ignored or misread to their increasing peril.
What actually happened was that great parts of the Jewish people were at the same time threatened with physical extinction from without and dissolution from within. In this situation, Jews concerned with the survival of their people would, in a curious desperate misinterpretation, hit on the consoling idea that antisemitism, after all, might be an excellent means for keeping the people together, so that the assumption of eternal antisemitism would even imply an eternal guarantee of Jewish existence. (OT, p. 16-17)
Not stopping at this biting observation, Arendt carried her indictment of the concept of “eternal antisemitism” even further:
The more surprising aspect of this explanation…is that it has been adopted by a great many unbiased historians and by an even greater number of Jews. It is this odd coincidence which makes the theory so very dangerous and confusing. Its escapist bias is in both instances the same: just as antisemites understandably desire to escape responsibility for their deeds, so Jews, attacked and on the defensive, even more understandably do not wish under any circumstances to discuss their share of responsibility. (OT, p. 16.)
“Modern anti-Semitism,” she wrote, “must be seen in the more general framework of the development of the nation-state, and at the same time its source must be found in certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries.” (OT, p. 17.) To put it bluntly, Arendt criticized the actions and inactions of specific groups of Jews in the centuries preceding the twentieth for contributing to the development of the constellation of events that crystallized in the rise of Nazism and the extermination of six million Jews. Was her theory, then, nothing more than a textbook case of blaming the victim? Or were her ideas about individual and collective responsibility bound to a theory of human agency and action necessary features of her anti-fatalistic view of history?
We’ll discuss these and other questions in the 2012 NEH Summer Seminar on Arendt’s political theory. Applications now being accepted. The Seminar will be held at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.
-Kathleen B. Jones