Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
3Feb/146

Totalitarianism and the Sand Storm

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“If this practice [of totalitarianism] is compared with […] [the desert] of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth.
The conditions under which we exist today in the field of politics are indeed threatened by these devastating sand storms.”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

In the concluding chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarianism must be understood as a new “form of government” in its own right, rather than as a transitory or haphazard series of external catastrophes afflicting classical forms like democracy or monarchy.  Essentially different from the extralegal form of tyranny as well, totalitarianism’s emergence marks a terrifying new horizon for human political experience, one that will surely survive the passing of Hitler and Stalin.  Arendt’s point is that the totalitarian form is still with us because the all too protean origins of totalitarianism are still with us: loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare.

sand

The sand storm is Arendt’s metaphor for this volatile and shifting space that throws together the totalitarian form, the enduring civilizational crises that produced it, and the public realms that are precariously pitched against it.  The ambiguities and subtleties of Arendt’s striking metaphor are worth pausing over.  Her image of the sand storm can tell us a lot about the nature and environs of the totalitarian form - and the kinds of politics that might withstand it.

Arendt’s judgments about totalitarianism in the book’s conclusion are carefully measured and quietly demur from the Cold War bombast with which she is now so often associated.  Although Arendt argues that totalitarianism will most certainly recur after Hitler and Stalin, she insists that this new form is too self-destructive to last for very long in any given time and place. Totalitarianism’s suicidal rage for conquest and violence renders it unable to secure anything like a permanent world order.  (She notes in the second edition’s 1966 preface that it has undoubtedly thawed into tyranny in the Soviet Union.)  Critics and admirers of Arendt’s theory alike often overlook both the fast burn of totalitarianism’s death-drive and the wider geopolitical amorphousness that ignites it.  Totalitarianisms emerge for a time, then disappear suddenly, only to have some of their elements migrate, shape-shift, and re-emerge elsewhere, accomplishing fantastical destruction in the course of their coming-to-be and passing-away.  There is, then, paradoxically, a kind of fluidity, turbulence, and even formlessness that attends this new political form, which is partly what Arendt’s sand storm metaphor tries to convey.

What in the world could cause the desert of tyranny to be thrown into the air and perambulate the earth?  One might guess that the cause is something like absolute lawlessness.  And, indeed, the extraordinary criminality of totalitarianism makes it tempting to think of it as a mere modern tyranny, but Arendt’s desert-in-motion metaphor argues against this commonplace.  She likens tyranny to a desert because it is a political space that is evacuated of laws, institutions, and traditions.  What remains under tyranny, however, is the open space of plurality, where human beings can still confront one another within a cohering field of action and power.  Totalitarianism radically eliminates the space of plurality through the mobilizations of mass terror, collapsing the spaces between us that make us human.  Such mobilizations are not simply lawless.  Although contemptuous of positive law, totalitarianism is lawfully obedient to its own images of Nature and History.  More than this, the totalitarian form seeks to embody the laws of Nature and History.  Because it imagines that these laws can be directly enacted by politics, the totalitarian movement tries vainly to form their more-than-human movements.  Ideology helps to put the desert into motion too, but again not mainly through the lawlessness of unreason.  Rather, Arendt argues that totalitarian ideology is distinguished by its logical lawfulness.  Totalitarian logicality at once divorces thought from worldly common sense and attaches it to arbitrary and fleeting first principles.  The resulting conclusions are half-believed, inchoate certitudes that cling feverishly to a tight deductive form.  Thanks to this a priori sandblasting of common sense, the desert of tyranny is no longer a setting for the creative solace of solitude, exile, or contemplation.  It can only become the whirlwind of ideological reason in concert with the supra-human laws of everyday terror.

The most important force that throws the desert into motion is loneliness, which Arendt distinguishes from isolation.  Isolation, the old game of divide and conquer, belongs to the desert of tyranny.  Isolated women and men lack an organized public realm in which to create freedom with others. Yet they nonetheless retain a private realm that roots them in the world through home, family, work, and labor.  To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one’s place in the world completely.  The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of “uprootedness” and “superfluousness” that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism.  Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway.  Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone.  The genius of mass terror is that it is able to sustain precisely this kind of loneliness among many millions of people together simultaneously.  This is in part, Arendt argues, because totalitarian ideology seems to promise an escape from loneliness, that is, to offer form to what was before felt as superfluous and uprooted.  It is also because there is something in the psychology of loneliness that makes it singularly susceptible to the ideological calculus of despair and fatalism, to “deducing […] always the worst possible conclusions,” as Arendt puts it.

origins

Arendt herself does not pursue the worst possible conclusions in the final chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism.  She does, however, entertain the dark possibility that the “true predicaments” of our times have yet “to assume their authentic form,” a form that she does not expect to be totalitarian.  Given her sand storm metaphor, this remark might be understood as a double warning about the emergence of still newer political forms and the persistent dangers of political formlessness.  While it may be difficult to imagine worse forms than totalitarianism, Arendt’s story is also about the generative origins of totalitarianism.  She concludes her book by arguing that these origins are still very much in the wind.  The protean creativity of these airborne elements makes political life a much more precarious and circumscribed affair than it might otherwise appear, especially in the wake of Nazi defeat and Stalinism’s thaw.  That said, there exist other protean forces that are more congenial to the power of the public realm.  Against the sand storm, Arendt wagers on the formless forces of natality, the new beginnings that attend every human being for the sheer fact of having been born into the world as a distinct someone, different from all who have lived or will live.  The stubborn facts of natality do not yield reliably to loneliness or ideology or terror precisely because of their radical novelty, their inevitable disruptions of whatever preceded them, but also because of their inherent worldliness.  Natality’s stubborn facts will always push - sometimes weakly, sometimes irresistibly - toward plurality, action, power, and the public realm.  It is for this reason, if for no other, that totalitarianism’s origins will never be the only origins given to us.

-Bill Dixon

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
11Dec/120

Talking through the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Prison

As a regular faculty member for the Bard Prison Initiative, I can attest that one of the most appealing aspects of working with incarcerated students is their wide-ranging curiosity and perceptiveness. The men I know are eager to discuss topics that both deepen and expand the content of their classes, and they are quick to draw connections between their classes and current events. Their ability to make these links has a lot to do with the avid, even voracious attention many of them pay to the news on N.P.R., the major television networks, and almost any publication they can get their hands on. Such interest is a matter of both intellectual and existential significance: as a few of my students have related to me, the news offers one way to relieve their sense of isolation and to maintain a modicum of contact with “life in the street.” But their ability to draw connections also depends on an expansive moral and political imagination, one that consistently relates distant happenings to the details of their own lives.

A few weeks ago the students in “Migration and Diaspora in Global Perspective,” the class I am now teaching at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, wanted to know my thoughts on Palestine’s recent elevation to nonmember observer status at the U.N. The onslaught of questions began almost from the moment I entered the classroom. How would the vote change relations between Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority? Would the Palestinians be able to challenge Israel’s military incursions and settlement policies in ways that were not available to them before? Why did the U.S. oppose Palestine’s observer status when so many other states in the General Assembly favored it? How should we interpret Germany’s decision to abstain? And just how significant was this vote anyway? Was it a merely symbolic gesture, or would it have a real and decisive impact on the future?

I was not entirely surprised by the students’ interest, and I suspect that our class was responsible for at least a bit of it. Not long before, we had spent the day watching and discussing Cherien Dabis’s debut feature film Amreeka (2009), which traces the journey of a Palestinian mother and son from their home in Bethlehem to an Illinois suburb. The film’s U.S. distributor, National Geographic Entertainment, has marketed it as a classic immigration story, and the packaging for the DVD plays on well-worn themes of new arrivals’ disorientation, homesickness, and gradual adjustment. But the film also draws on Dabis’s own childhood memories in Omaha, Nebraska to cast an all-too-knowing eye on American life during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and two key scenes deftly portray the power dynamics that unfold daily at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. Beneath the anodyne surface, then, Amreeka packs a subversive punch, and my students appreciated its shrewd take on both the Israeli occupation and the U.S. War on Terror.

But my class is hardly the only reason why they are concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few of the students feel a degree of personal connection to ongoing events in the region because they were born and raised as Jews or because they converted later in life to Judaism or Islam. Others adopt a more distanced perspective but nevertheless regard the conflict as a pivotal geopolitical impasse about which they should, as informed students and citizens, have some knowledge.

And still others interpret the conflict as an almost paradigmatic instance of injustice, one that crystallizes the colonial legacies, entrenched political interests, and enduring economic disparities that define our contemporary world.

Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates strongly with many of the students’ own experiences of stigmatization and hyper-visibility on ethnic and racial grounds. In one way or another, virtually all of the African American and Latino students in my class—and they represent the overwhelming majority—can relate to the profiling, ID checks, body and vehicle searches, and policing of space that are an integral part of the Israeli occupation. Many of them can also sympathize with Palestinians’ more general condition of disenfranchisement, their desire for “a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective” (to invoke an evocative phrase from Hannah Arendt). In many instances, they cultivate such sympathy by drawing metaphorical links with their own histories and memories of exclusion.

On the basis of such connections, many of the students in my classes (and the Bard Prison Initiative more broadly) take a keen interest in struggles for cultural and political change in other parts of the world. They respond strongly to readings and films that deal not simply with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also with apartheid in South Africa and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At the same time, they display considerable curiosity—and not a little generosity—toward other groups that adopt and re-work political traditions and cultural practices they typically claim as “their own.” For example, African American students are often struck by the ways that Northern Irish Catholics adopted elements of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they display a good deal of appreciation for the manner that Palestinian youth take up the aesthetics of hip-hop for their own purposes today. They do not typically claim exclusive ownership over these cultural and political formations, and they do not condemn moments of cross-cultural appropriation as illegitimate poaching or theft (although, I must admit, it can take a moment to digest white Irish Catholics singing “We Shall Overcome”).

I welcomed the questions the students posed that day, and I worked hard to answer them as best I could. But I was also aware of the distinct challenge they posed to me as a teacher and fellow observer of the world. How could I convey my own understanding of the recent U.N. vote while also acknowledging the lingering uncertainties and disagreements that it inevitably reflected? How could I draw attention to the complexities of the current conflict and not merely confirm, in an uncritical way, the sympathy that most of the students already felt for the Palestinian cause? And how could I suggest that we should be thoughtful about the connections we draw between other people’s experiences and our own?

I, for one, am acutely aware that I cannot facilely equate my own societal positioning and life history with those of my students. Are there limits on the imaginative links we might forge with people in other times and places?

Our discussion that day barely scratched the surface of these larger issues. But I left it with a new appreciation for both the difficulty and the importance of this kind of candid conversation. As challenging as it might be, such exchange is significant precisely because it bridges the political and the personal, the distant and the close-at-hand.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
24Feb/120

Legislating Memories of Violence

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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.