Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
3Jun/135

The Delusion of the Omnipotence

Arendtquote

“There is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all (…) build factories to produce corpses. (…) Perhaps what is behind it all is only that individual human beings did not kill other individual human beings for human reasons, but that an organized attempt was made to eradicate the concept of the human being”.  –  “And all this ... arises from – or, better, goes along with – the delusion of the omnipotence (not simply with the lust for power) of an individual man. If an individual man qua man were omnipotent, then there is in fact no reason why men in the plural should exist at all – just as in monotheism it is only God’s omnipotence that made him ONE.”

-Hannah Arendt / Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926-1969

Arendt distinguishes two historical boundaries that separated pre-modernity from modernity and liberalism from total domination. In her books The Human Condition and Between Past and Future Arendt discusses the profound changes which modernity brought about through technological progress and simultaneous world alienation, by withdrawal from the common world to self-reflection, by division of the world into subjectivity and objectivity, by substitution of philosophy and politics with an instrumental understanding of theory and praxis, and loss of the interwoven phenomena of authority, tradition and religion as guarantees for the stability of political communities.

clocks

All this opened the way to transgress traditional boundaries and to give in to the temptation to be omnipotent. The totalitarian movements transformed the nihilistic “all is allowed” into “all is possible”.

Is is precisely the same thesis that Freud, Castoriadis and others advanced: the lust for omnipotence is neither an exception nor the experience of a limited number of human beings but the general experience of early childhood. The experience of omnipotence precedes the recognition of otherness. Recognition of the other has to be learned in the course of development from the pre-social to the socially shaped human being. According to philosopher and psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook, we are thus confronted with a constant working of  “the negative” in us.

“The experience of omnipotence is significant for the normal as well as for the abnormal child, for youth and for adulthood. Examples can be found in religious, aesthetic and erotic experiences, in the state of being in love, in mass phenomena and in certain forms of psychosis.”

In this context it is worth analysing the different forms of violence and asking why and how they transgress the boundaries to omnipotence. For example, we can distinguish between hooligan crowd violence, sniper killings in wartime and the mass murder committed by the Norwegian Anders Breivik. Transgressing boundaries in the case of hooligans consists of crossing the boundary from respect for the physical integrity of the other to illegal physical injury, in the case of snipers from a ban on killing to legally controlled or uncontrolled killing of enemy combatants, and in the case of Breivik in the annihilation of all representatives of the enemy. In Eichmann’s case, as we know, the maximum transgression consisted in the endless annihilation of entire peoples and populations.

What we find in the first case, the fierce violence of hooligans, is lust for power and temporary transgression. Here a code of honour prescribes that violence should be fierce and brutal, but not fatal, that those not involved should not be attacked, that the use of weapons is forbidden and that conflicting groups should be similar in number and strength. Hooligans do not intend to destroy their opponents but merely to gain victory over them. Consequently their violence has nothing to do with delusions of omnipotence, but a great deal to do with lust for power. There is, however, an element in their behaviour that could pave the way for omnipotence. They themselves describe this as a kick, a surge of violence that can be produced instantly and only stopped on the threshold of destroying the other. In the interests of journalism, the American journalist Bill Buford socialized with British hooligans for some time and observed in himself the euphoria that accompanied each transgression, a sense of transcendence that rose to ecstasy, where the individual was completely absorbed into the crowd. “Violence is one of the strongest sensations of pleasure." He described the vast majority of hooligans as what we might call ordinary neighbours.

glass

The second group are the snipers. What makes them transgress boundaries is the lust to kill enemies as defined by the state, the army or the militia to which they belong. Chris Kyle, for example, the best sniper the US army ever produced, officially shot 160 enemy combatants in Iraq, 250 in his opinion, and described killing as his job and the war as his area of work.

“When you kill someone the first time, you’re stirred up. You think: Am I really allowed to kill this guy? Is this OK? But once you kill an enemy, you realize it’s alright. You do it again. And again. You do it so the enemy cannot kill you and your compatriots. You do it until there’s no one left to kill. "

Chris Kyle became a killing machine employed by the state.

When his marriage was threatened, he returned to the United States. There too, death remained his main topic. He became an alcoholic, was involved in brawls, shot two car thieves, set up a company to train snipers and took care of traumatized veterans by accompanying them to shooting ranges. In February of this year he was shot by one of the traumatized ex-soldiers at a shooting range. Chris Kyle received numerous awards. The nation is proud of him.

The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik represents the third form of transgression. His deed is not marked primarily by the lust for power or the lust to kill but by the ideological justification of an omnipotent action. He bombed the government district of Oslo, killing eight people, and massacred 69 participants of a social-democrat youth camp. He justified this act in a fifteen hundred page manifesto entitled 2083 A European Declaration of Independence. He claimed to represent a Norwegian and European resistance movement and to be a member of the “indigenous population” struggling against the decline of Norway due to uncontrolled immigration policies by liberals and representatives of a multicultural society.

“It is 100 percent certain that there will be a war between nationalists and internationalists in Europe. We, the first militant nationalists, are the first raindrops indicating that a big storm is coming. ... To die as a martyr for his people’s survival is the greatest honour in a man’s life.”

As a single perpetrator Breivik needed a particularly strong ideological justification and defined himself as a martyr who was sacrificing his life for the ethnic community. To do this he needed to distance himself emotionally from his fellow citizens and avoid any kind of interaction for several months, which he spent exclusively playing violent video games.

The same occurs with guerrilla groups. A crucial prerequisite for their deeds is the ideologically justified dehumanization of the potential victims and the transformation of the guerrilla fighters into cold-blooded killers. It is not only permissible to kill the “lackeys of imperialism” but the murders must be carried out in the most cold-blooded manner to be effective. In his Message to the Tricontinental in 1967 Che Guevara declared:

“Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”

We tend to underestimate the ongoing existence of violence and the lust for omnipotence. When we talk about recognition we forget the disregard, humiliation and negation of the other and consider this of secondary importance. When we talk about state monopoly on the use of force, we tend to forget that violence still exists, that there are permanent no-go areas and terrorist groups, and that there is violence that is permitted, trained and paid for by the state and violence exercised by our neighbours. Whether legal or illegal – there is an irreconcilable relationship between civilized behaviour at work during the week and violent behaviour on weekends, and between a democratic family father who respects the rule of law in one country and systematically kills in another.

head

When Arendt searched the origins of totalitarianism she found them in the non-totalitarian modernity (unsolved minority problems, un-political human rights concepts, administrative colonialism, nationalist concepts of politics, etc.) Violence belongs to them. It holds in itself not only the negation of plurality and freedom but also the delusion of the omnipotence.

-Wolfgang Heuer

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.
11Jan/130

Infinitely Intoxicating

Louis Pasteur once wrote:

I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.

To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.

It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.

All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.

The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.

David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? 

Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.

What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.

Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do?  Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.

The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.””  And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.

 Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.

Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:

It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.

I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.

As Birkirts writes:

For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.

Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.

Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.

Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.

And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
18Jun/125

Banishing Oblivion

It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear; but just as the Nazis' feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of the massacres - through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery - were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents "disappear in silent anonymity" were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.

            —Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Aung San Suu Kyi accepted her Nobel Peace Prize this weekend, 21 years after it was awarded. For over two decades since her landslide victory in what was then Burma and is now Myanmar, Suu Kyi has stood fast in her opposition to the military junta ruling her country. The junta has sought to make her disappear, suppress any mention of her, and violently repress all protest and dissent.

Until 2010 when, suddenly, the regime allowed Suu Kyi to stand for elections as the leader of the opposition. She is now a member of parliament.

In her speech accepting her Nobel Prize, Suu Kyi said of the Nobel Prize she won in 1991:

What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me.

To be part of the human community is to be seen and remembered. It is to affirm that one has meaning and significance in the world. At a time when she had been hidden, silenced, and deprived of the right to speak and act in a way that matters in the world, Suu Kyi was in danger of disappearing. Hanging tenuously over the pit of oblivion, she felt her bond with the human community slipping away. “To be forgotten,” Suu Kyi said in Oslo, “is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity."

Suu Kyi was near to falling through the cracks of the world into a black hole of forgetting. It is such oblivion that Hannah Arendt saw to be the grave threat totalitarian domination posed to human beings. Totalitarianism threatens to acquire the ability not simply to oppress a people, but to do so in such a way that even their death and their oppression was senseless and powerless in the world. To deprive a person of even the right to die like a human being and to be remembered is, Arendt saw, the greatest imaginable attack on human dignity.

But such holes of oblivion do not exist. That is Arendt's optimistic conclusion that she brings to bear upon the argument of a German Army physician, Peter Bamm. In his book The Invisible Flags (1952) Bamm distinguishes the SS mobile killing units from ordinary German soldiers. Arendt quotes his account of the murder of the Jews at length:

We knew this. We did nothing. Anyone who had seriously protested or done anything against the killing unit would have been arrested within twenty-four hours and would have disappeared. It belongs 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. A good many of us might have accepted such a death. The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity. It is certain that anyone who had dared to suffer death rather than silently tolerate the crime would have sacrificed his life in vain. This is not to say that such a sacrifice would have been morally meaningless. It would only have been practically useless. None of us had a conviction so deeply rooted that we could have taken upon ourselves a practically useless sacrifice for the sake of a higher moral meaning.

If Bamm's argument at first sounds "hopelessly plausible," it trades in platitudes. Its power rests upon the assumption that deaths of resistance would have been in vain, that resisters would have disappeared in "silent anonymity." Practical uselessness thus excuses one from courageous moral action.

Arendt's faith in the symbolic power of moral action and the necessary failure of totalitarian suppression of that power underlies her stunning formulation of the Right to Have Rights in the Origins of Totalitarianism. Whereas much of human rights discourse in 1950 and still today imagines that there is a human right to life or to food or security, Arendt rejects those claims. Humans will die and some will starve. This is not hard hearted so much as it is a fact. Death and starvation can be unjust and tragic, but they are not inhuman thus not a violation of fundamental human rights. What is more, there are times when the most human thing we can do is to die and starve in ways that so exemplify our humanity.

The most basic human right is the right to know that whether we decide to live or to die, our choice will matter.  For Arendt, the truly human rights are the rights to be heard, to be seen, and to be meaningful. As humans, we have the right to belong to an organized community, where we can speak and act in ways that matter in the world. In other words, we have the human right to not be consigned to oblivion.

We have such a human right both in theory and in practice. Arendt is convinced that even at a time when technology allows totalitarian regimes to rewrite and even to rewire reality, facts have a stubbornness that allows them to surface. And moral action, even more than mere fact, has a power that is impossible to suppress. As long as the story of resistance can be told, totalitarian oblivion is simply a myth that excuses inaction.

The myth of oblivion is shattered by action in spite of totalitarian domination. One of Arendt's favorite examples of such moral action is the German Sergeant Anton Schmidt. During the war, Schmidt assisted numerous Jews to escape by giving them passports, money, and papers. He never took money in return. He was indeed captured and executed. But his action was not in vain. For not only did he save individual Jews, he inspired them and others to continue their resistance. And his story today remains as a powerful reminder of the practical and moral importance of courageous self-sacrifice in the name of the good.

In her speech on Saturday, Suu Kyi said that the Nobel Peace Prize "opened up a door in my heart."  The Nobel Peace Prize is often derided as political. That is often true. And yet there are times when the prize not only rewards sacrifice, but salvages a world in danger of being lost. The Nobel Prize can help illuminate those holes of oblivion that continue to exist, however temporary that existence might be. At its best, the Prize celebrates those like Suu Kyi who choose to dedicate their lives to the conviction that the truth will win out and the holes of oblivion cannot last.

-Roger Berkowitz

 

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.