“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”
- Hannah Arendt, Thinking
In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t). There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall. The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it. There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction. Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use? Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine? What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not? There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.
The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether. I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason). Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult. But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought. Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.
One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time). The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself. A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.
If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.
There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself). But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work. Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.
Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can. That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation. When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.” In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought. We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.
It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility. On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power. On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved. It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).
What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live. Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it. Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us. If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse. This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond. In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself. When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap. And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.
Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers. Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible. When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task. It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.
From Athens to Madrid, the European crisis has entered yet another of its "decisive" phases —how many decisive phases can one crisis have? Reflecting on Europe has brought to mind Seyla Benhabib's 2004 Tanner Lectures on cosmopolitan universalism, which itself was inspired by Hannah Arendt's comments on international law in the epilogue and postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe might seem to have little to do with Benhabib's discourse ethics or Arendt's affirmation of the limits of international law, but it does. Let me explain.
The debt crisis in Europe is not an economic crisis. It is a political crisis. The Euro-zone created a common currency without a common political system. This worked great for a while as countries benefitted from integration and stability of the Euro. But now that debt and recession plague Europe, indebted countries like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are losing control of their politics.
The typical response to over-indebtedness in democratic countries is to devalue one's currency. This causes massive inflation, allowing the debts to be paid. It is painful in the short term and everyone's buying power decreases and the standard of living suffers. But devaluation resets the economy and allows for growth free from the straight-jacket of debt.
It is of course possible to achieve the same effect of devaluation within the Euro zone. The Euro zone could issue Euro bonds, which would be inflationary and allow the indebted countries to pay off their Euro-debts with plentiful and cheap Euros. This is the solution that French President Francois Hollande and others are pushing.
The problem in the Euro-zone is that countries without debt problems don't want to devalue the Euro and thus lower their purchasing power. Without the political sense of a common fate, Germans do not want to suffer for the sake of the Greeks. What is more, the Germans have no faith that if they bail the Greeks out now, the Greeks will reform their profligate ways and not come back for another bailout in a few years. The result is the current crisis of austerity. Or so it seems.
Behind the scenes there is another debate that few are paying attention to. Amidst the repeated rejection of Euro bonds by Germany's leaders is the insertion of a caveat. Euro bonds would be possible if they came with treaty reform, say Germans like Joshcka Fisher and economic leaders like European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. In essence, Germany is willing to bail out Europe, but only if the countries in the Euro zone agree to give up a substantial amount of their sovereignty over economic policy. What Germany wants is for decisions about budgets and deficits and tax policy to be set by European bureaucrats not by democratically elected leaders. If the struggling Euro zone countries agree to those conditions, there is a good chance Germany will agree to bail them out with Euro bonds. And Europe will move closer to a United States of Europe, but one dominated by economic bureaucrats rather than a democratic legislature.
The connection between European politics and Hannah Arendt is important. What Germany is demanding is that Europe abandon its decentralized political control over economic matters and cede decision-making to an apolitical centralized European bureaucracy. Behind such a desire is the subordination of politics to economics that Hannah Arendt saw as one of the defining features of the modern age.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argued that the transfer of the economic principle of unlimited growth to politics underlies imperialism. Imperialism has its economic roots in the “realm of business speculation”-specifically the bursting of an investment bubble in the 1870s. As national entrepreneurs sought new markets, they enlisted state support for economic expansion. “Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central idea of imperialism.” The rise of imperialism and the spread of economic thinking in the political sphere means, Arendt argues, that politics becomes subservient to economics.
Arendt fears the confusion of economics and politics and especially the elevation of economics over politics. Since politics demands the imposition of limits and “stabilizing forces that stand in the way of constant transformation and expansion,” she argues that imperialist expansion brought with it a grave and destabilizing threat to the political order. When politics under the sway of economic imperatives is forced to expand on the world stage, political leaders must offer ideologies that give meaning to an ever-larger, undefined, disconnected, and homeless mass, a population that replaces a citizenry. Under the economic imperatives of growth, politics becomes world politics.
It is an open question today whether politics can return to a political activity that sets moral, ethical, and economic limits on human action. The reason is that we are increasingly suspicious of action, which is, by its nature, free, spontaneous, surprising and unpredictable. Whether we are Germans seeking economic stability, Americans demanding that the Federal government limit the states in their right to deliver (or not deliver) education or healthcare, or human rights activists insisting that individual states conform to international cosmopolitan norms of behavior, the liberal and centralizing demand that people behave well according to cosmopolitan standards rubs against Arendt's democratic insistence that politics must leave space for local, bounded, and undisciplined action.
And here we can return to Seyla Benhabib's call in her Tanner lectures for a new cosmopolitan universalism. Benhabib has initiated an important engagement with Arendt and human rights, one that embraces Arendt's formulation of a "right to have rights" but also resists Arendt's efforts to limit the scope of that universal right. We should all be grateful for the clear-sighted way Benhabib raises this crucial question.
Arendt seeks her bearings in reformulating human rights from her experiences of the Jews and other minority peoples during and preceding the holocaust. The true “calamity of the rightless” in the middle of the 20th century, Arendt writes, is “not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion... but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever.” Human rights reflect the legalized exclusion of human beings from civilized communities and these human rights are “much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are the rights of citizens.” The rights of man, in other words, are not revealed by the deprivation of specific rights, but by the plight of those who are expelled from all rights; the truly rightless are those who are so oppressed that they are deprived of legal status so that no one will even oppress them. It is this total deprivation of rights that makes manifest the one truly human right, what Arendt calls the “right to have rights.”
In thinking about Arendt's enigmatic formula, Benhabib has worried that Arendt simply does not offer a full and philosophical elucidation of the right to have rights. The "right to have rights" partakes of a "philosophical perplexity"; to invoke the "right to have rights" is to give certain rights "a binding power over and beyond the moral obligation that they impose on moral agents." The rights in the "right to have rights" are not mere "oughts," but are universal, cosmopolitan norms. Or at least that is what Benhabib wants to argue, with and against Arendt.
If Arendt remained suspicious of international norms that would be applied in international courts, Benhabib argues that the last 50 years have witnessed an "evolution of global civil society that is characterized by a transition from international to cosmopolitan norms of justice." She embraces the term "cosmopolitanism," which she argues has rightly become one of the key words of our time. What cosmopolitanism means, for Benhabib, is the "carrying of universalistic norms" of a common truth that is inter-subjective rather than metaphysical. In short, Benhabib argues that cosmopolitan norms are emerging in our times that give basic human rights to individuals and can even bind state actors.
Benhabib’s interpretation of the "right to have rights" is appealing, especially in the face of, for example, the ongoing inhumane treatment of Shiites in Syria. Yet, as Benhabib herself recognizes, her reading complicates Arendt’s hard-minded characterization of the right to have rights as “a right to belong to some kind of community.” Arendt means the right “to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions.” In doing so, Arendt excludes the traditional civil rights of life and liberty that Benhabib wants to read into Arendt’s formula. Arendt is careful to distinguish human rights to the rights to be treated humanely that Benhabib seeks to encode in a newly emerging cosmopolitan institutionalization of human rights. For reasons at the core of Arendt’s thinking, Arendt clearly limits the right to have rights and thus human rights to only two rights, the right to act and the right to speak.
The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.” Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act—to be effectual and meaningful in a public world—that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.
Benhabib has good reasons to want to expand the cosmopolitan basis of Arendt's "right to have rights." It is important to see, however, that the desire to strengthen a cosmopolitan foundation for human rights places stability and security above action in much the same as the present German desire to subordinate Greeks and Spaniards to a pan-European regime of responsible citizenship. Both are motivated by a desire for security, stability, and standards. And both elevate the institutional application of cosmopolitan universal norms (economic norms in Europe, human rights norms internationally) over the messiness of local political action.
At a time of economic crisis and humanitarian crises, the great uncertainty of our world will militate toward ever more centralization and thus ever less space for action. Benhabib is certainly alive to these tensions and has answers to many of them. You can read her account here. It is your weekend read.