When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.
One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.
Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.
Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,
Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.
In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.
The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.
What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.” This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.
It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.
But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:
And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.
It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."
All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.
Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case, few who repeat Cesarani's argument have read him or for that matter Arendt herself.
To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.
For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”
I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.
I was regularly reminded that the immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.
I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.
Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?” Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.
The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.
Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”
I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”
To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.
“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.
I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.
I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.
Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.
They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River” would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.
More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.
Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.
“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.
Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”
“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?
Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”
Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.
"Heidegger is wrong: man is not “thrown” “in the world;” if we are thrown, then – no differently from animals – onto the earth. Man is precisely guided, not thrown, precisely for that reason his continuity arises and the way he belongs appears. Poor us, if we are thrown into the world!"
"Heidegger hat unrecht: “in die Welt” ist der Mensch nicht “geworfen;” wenn wir geworfen sind, so – nicht anders als die Tiere – auf die Erde. In die Welt gerade wird der Mensch geleitet, nicht geworfen, da gerade stellt sich seine Kontinuität her und offenbart seine Zugehörigkeit. Wehe uns, wenn wir in die Welt geworfen werden!"
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Notebook 21, Section 68, August, 1955
Hannah Arendt follows her teacher Martin Heidegger in casting the classical philosophical question of the relation of the one and the many as the relationship between the individual and the world. Like the early Heidegger, she emphasizes the future, but she more frequently combines conceptual and narrative explication. For Arendt, freedom is at stake, the freedom of plural humanity that can call on, but cannot be reduced to, guiding ideas of tradition or authority. Yet while she consistently defends freedom through action that cannot be tied to the logic of the past or an assumed goal in the future, her thinking has both a moment of freedom and concern with connection to the past.
In Being and Time, Heidegger’s idea of “thrownness” (Geworfenheit) offers a conceptual hinge between a limitation and expansion of freedom. On the one hand, the thrown “Dasein” cannot choose to come into the world, much less into a particular world. On the other hand, once situated in a field of relations, possibilities open that allow Dasein to fashion a sense of the future and self-knowledge.
Arendt can be seen to ask how exactly we are to recognize the original condition of being thrown in such a way that new possibilities open up. Her objection to Heidegger in the passage above takes a subtle linguistic path that shows how her method of reading inflects her philosophical ideas. Rather than holding exclusively to the conceptual development of “thrownness,” she offers a terminological challenge. She says that man is only thrown into the natural “earth,” not the humanly-made “world.” In inserting this distinction between the earth and the world, she reads “geworfen” not abstractly as “thrown,” but concretely, implying that she has in mind a second use of the German verb "werfen:" to refer to animals giving birth.
Arendt wants to leave the merely animal behind. The German verb “leiten” that I have translated here as “guided” could also mean to direct, to conduct, to lead, to govern. Thinking ahead to Arendt’s writing on education, I hear a connection to “begleiten,” which means to accompany. The guiding that one receives gives a sense of continuing and belonging to a greater world. Heidegger insists that Dasein does not choose to be thrown into a specific world, we are born without our choice or input. For Arendt, this is our earthliness and she emphasizes the difference between the human world and the given earth. With respect to the world, she highlights the connection to others from the start. Since others exist before the entrance of the newcomer, we also assume responsibility for their entry to the world. One must be educated into the world, which is not simply the earth, but the humanly constructed edifice that includes history and memory and the polis.
Dana Villa and Peg Birmingham suggest that Arendt replaces Heidegger’s “geworfen” with “geboren” (“thrown” with “born”). The passage from the Thought Diary above shows the complexity of this substitution and that it only works by changing the context to the world rather than earth. However, while the quote shows that Arendt relegates Heidegger’s thrownness to the realm of the earth and body, her own idea of “natality” brings the body back to her thinking of freedom. Being born is very important for Arendt, but not in Heidegger’s sense. If "werfen" can refer to animals giving birth, Arendt works out a specific way in which humans are born, one that emphasizes a liberating break from the earth. Humans, as Arendt will say in The Human Condition, are born with the ability to start something completely new.
I think Arendt would say that we are always guided in a certain way. This leads us to ask if today we are making a choice as a society to abdicate explicit reflection and responsibility regarding the terms of guidance, either by “outsourcing” these decisions to experts or assuming that individuals can still make rational choices in the face of corporations and institutions that carefully take advantage of cognitive limitations. In other words: In what ways are people guided into the world that we do not think about, and how could reflection help us here?
On the other hand, the note ends with an existential lament that reminds us of the Romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin’s “weh mir” (“poor me”). After noting how she thinks Heidegger is wrong to see us thrown into the world, Arendt returns us to his despair; but the despair she imagines arises insofar as we are thrown into the world—which would mean that we lose the world as a humanly built home.
Ernst Cassirer is an oft-neglected thinker in contemporary continental philosophy. He is typically eclipsed by Martin Heidegger, whom he faced in the now famous disputation at Davos, Switzerland in the spring of 1929, which had such a dramatic effect on continental philosophy that the young Emmanuel Levinas, who attended the debate, felt as if he were "present at the creation and end of the world". In spite of Cassirer's attempt to make his three-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-1929) more accessible to an English speaking audience through a concise redaction in An Essay on Man (1944), he remains a marginal figure in contemporary philosophy.
However, Ned Curthoys, a researcher at the Australian National University's School of Cultural Inquiry, has recently recovered a latent conversation between Cassirer and Hannah Arendt that casts new light on the impact and significance of his work.
Arendt's vigorous annotations in her copy of Cassirer's An Essay on Man indicate that she was a diligent and consistent reader of Cassirer. Her personal library housed in the Arendt Collection at Bard College contains over a dozen titles by Cassirer. Most Cassirer’s works in Arendt's personal library contain heavy annotations and marginalia, which suggest a critical and substantive engagement with Cassirer's work. Although Arendt's references to Cassirer in her major works are sparse—once in her essay "The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern" in Between Past and Future, and four times in The Human Condition—it is clear that Cassirer had an influence on Arendt's postwar writings. The question is: What was the extent of this influence?
Curthoys has recently taken up this question and offers a persuasive argument that Arendt's philosophy of history and her philosophical anthropology were shaped significantly by her reading of Cassirer. Curthoys' early essays on Arendt explored the political significance of narrative in her work and her use of "thought-figures," like Charlie Chaplin, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Isak Dinesen, all of whom attempted to subvert the authoritative discourses of their times by means of counter-narratives. Curthoys discerns the marks of a German émigré consciousness in Arendt's postwar writings that suggests an intellectual dialogue with other German émigrés like Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer. He foregrounds Arendt's status as a conscious pariah and engages in a postcolonial reading of her work that highlights her development of a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric metanarratives of her age.
More recently, Curthoys has begun excavating a latent conversation between Arendt and Cassirer. In his essay, "The Pathos and Promise of Counter-History: Hannah Arendt and Ernst Cassirer's German-Jewish Historical Consciousness" (in Power, Judgment, and Political Evil,), Curthoys explores Arendt's philosophy of history, and argues that she found a "counter-history" in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer that allowed her to challenge the Eurocentric discourse on history that had rendered her an outsider, a pariah. It is precisely this location outside the dominant identities and political narratives of Europe, Curthoys avers, that served as Arendt's Ansatzpunkt, or starting point, and allowed her to engage in a recursive investigation of history.
What is most significant in this essay is Curthoys' claim that Arendt's engagement with Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms" was instrumental in the development of her philosophy of history, and his suggestion that it led to her reconsider Cassirer's defense of neo-Kantianism in the Davos debate, a reconsideration that Curthoys sees as the impetus for Arendt's return to Kant in her final years. This engagement was not a wholesale adoption of Cassirer's approach to history, Curthoys argues, but a critical and creative renewal of his thought.
Curthoys has extended this exploration of the connection between Arendt and Cassirer in a subsequent article titled, "Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and the Twentieth-Century Revival of Philosophical Anthropology." Curthoys argues that Arendt's focus on philosophical anthropology in The Human Condition, Men in Dark Times, The Life of the Mind, and her final lectures on Kant is the result of her ongoing critical engagement with Cassirer's work. At the heart of this article is Curthoys’ assertion that Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms is refracted in Arendt's notion of a common world. Cassirer had argued in his Philosophie der symbolischen Formen that human beings are symbolic animals that express themselves in systems of signs, which mediate reality in networks of meaning. These systems of signs take form in language, myth, religion, art, science, and history. Readers of Patchen Markell's "Arendt's Work: On the Architecture of The Human Condition" will recall his claim that "work" plays a mediating role, which resonates with Cassirer's notion of symbolic forms.
Curthoys' investigation and recovery of the intellectual conversation between Arendt and Cassirer is compelling, but more needs to be done to make this influence explicit. Curthoys' new book The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer's and Hannah Arendt's Hidden Conversation (Forthcoming in September 2013, Berghahn Books) promises to offer more evidence for Arendt's creative development of Cassirer's thought. Curthoys' research opens up a new line of inquiry into the wider connections between Arendt and the German-Jewish intellectual tradition and offers further confirmation of her fidelity to Jewish thought in general.
-John Douglas Macready (University of Dallas)
From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him—already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well—could start from scratch and still make a career.
-Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 33
Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann and his striving to redeem himself from his life continues to teach us an important lesson about our relationship to movements. This lesson is not that we are all potentially “evil” due to the banality of most of our motivations. It is rather that our standing with respect to any movement, for good or for evil, places us in a position potentially to be sacrificed to or effaced under the movement itself.
An illustration of this possibility that has for some time resonated with me is in a 2005 audio commentary by Mumia Abu-Jamal on the death of Rosa Parks. Here, he reminds listeners of Claudette Colvin, the teenager who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nine months before Parks. He says,
People build movements, one by one, in tens, hundreds, thousands and eventually millions, and what if Claudette Colvin, this poor woman, lost not only her seat and her dignity but was later tossed in a mental institution. Few remember this woman’s name, but her contribution that would set the stage for Parks was immense...
We react very differently to this conception of “movement” than we do to the force that Arendt refers to in Eichmann in Jerusalem. We do not condemn individuals who become swept up in it, but rather praise and admire them.
What then differentiates the movement of the Third Reich from that of the American civil rights movement, other than the obvious? The former, according to Arendt, seemed to exist independently of individuals; it was a “History” with a narrative and direction all its own, not built by individuals, but rather itself building individuals. Adolph Eichmann tried to find in the History that the Nazi regime tried to bring about, a chance to acquire significance and visibility as an individual and to become, in a sense, a part of this history. Arendt makes clear the futility of such an attempt when she paints a picture of Eichmann not as a grand man, evil or otherwise, but as a banal figure who could not even interact intelligently with his interlocutors at the court.
When Mumia Abu-Jamal speaks of the civil rights movement of which both Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin were a part, he describes a force in which it is still possible to identify within it the individuals whose actions have contributed to it. This movement appears not as a force of History, but of individuals, each of who advances the movement in her own way.
But even in Abu-Jamal’s conception of movement and despite the justice of this cause, the individual becomes, in some sense, lost to the movement in a way that is reminiscent of Eichmann’s disappearance into History. Arendt’s description of Eichmann’s relationship to the movement of his time can make us especially sensitive to the self-sacrifice of Colvin in a way that Abu-Jamal’s recognition of her does not. Arendt helps us to see that any movement, whether for good or for evil, requires that one be open to the possibility of being sacrificed, of having one’s individual action become transformed into a “step” toward a larger goal. Every movement demands individual sacrifice, for as long as the goal of everyone’s actions is the common, shared one around which the “movement” itself is organized, none is wholly significant in his own right.
This does not mean that the sacrifice may not be worth it, as the sacrifices to the cause of civil rights in this country surely were. But it does mean that our relationship to and experience of being a part of a movement cannot, or at least should not, be unconditionally positive. We should instead be wary of the possibility that our participation may not always be personally empowering and not delude ourselves into upholding the movements we believe in as unqualified forces for good.
And this means that we should attend to movements, both as their participants and their spectators, with the heavy heart that is appropriate to the sadness that should accompany our acknowledgement that individuals will be sacrificed. Abu-Jamal almost does this when he characterizes Colvin’s contribution as derivative of having set the stage for Parks and her action. But he ultimately tries to eject from our minds the tragedy of her loss by impressing us with the justice of the movement itself. “What if,” he asks, “this poor woman…lost not only her seat and her dignity but was later tossed in a mental institution”? She had set the stage for Rosa Parks and for a critical success in the movement for the rights of African-Americans.
He is right. But to be significant in this way is still sad, because to experience oneself as being merely a stagehand for another’s performance is a sad and lonely existence. Colvin reports having mixed feelings about her role in the civil rights movement and its leaders’ pushing her to the sidelines. She does not seem enamored with the possibility of being swept up in a movement (as Eichmann was) and she acknowledges the appropriateness of the decision to pass her up for Rosa Parks with the resignation of someone who had no other alternative.
When we talk about the most prominent movement of our time—Occupy Wall Street—we often fail to acknowledge the necessary possibility of individual sacrifice. Yet at the same time we demand in some way such sacrifice from everyone who participates in the movements we believe in. We reject leaders who seem too egotistical and who seem to profit individually from their positions. The problem is not that we shouldn’t ask for these sacrifices, but rather that we fail to acknowledge their necessity and in so doing, become open to possibly sacrificing individuals with impunity or with even joy. That one would sacrifice oneself for a movement, either willingly or not, might be laudable, depending on the movement, and it is definitely necessary. But this should be a deeply sad occurrence that does not make our commitment to a movement less passionate or energetic, but certainly should make it more complicated and more attuned to the sadness and tragedy that accompany it.
It is not enough to try to lionize the sacrificed individual, for this only covers over the tragedy of the individual’s loss, attempting to recover the idea of the thorough, unconditional righteousness of certain movements. If, as some have claimed, there is any softness on Arendt’s part in her description of Eichmann, it is not because she sympathizes with this figure in any way or sees his actions as anything less than deserving of his execution. It is because she recognizes the tragic character of all movements. With her description of Eichmann’s longing to achieve personal success through the Nazi regime, she was, I submit, trying to alert us to the necessary effacement of the individual that is universally present in all movements. With respect to this goal, her tone is appropriately somber. And as such, even though our political condition is nothing like that of Nazi Germany and our movement nothing like that regime’s, there is still plenty to learn from Eichmann in Jerusalem when we think about the movements that we might identify today.
“It is perfectly true that ‘all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them,’ in the words of Isak Dinesen, who not only was one of the great storytellers of our time but also—and she was nearly unique in this respect—knew what she was doing.”
-Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics, p. 262
“‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them’ –Isak Dinesen” (The Human Condition, 175 [one of two mottos for Chapter 5: Action])
Arie Amaya-Akkermans has recently and beautifully used this space to reflect on the importance of Dinesen for Arendt, specifically in the way the latter relies on Dinesen for a notion of the praxis of storytelling that is central to Arendt’s conception of politics and of the life of the mind. In calling attention to these two moments where Arendt leans on Dinesen’s claim about life, loss and narrative, I hope to shed a different light on what it means (for Arendt) to quote another, and thus to reflect on the very praxis of this “quote of the week.” I want to reflect for a moment on the different ways in which Dinesen’s formula informs these two pieces, to what effects, and with what ends in mind. In this way, I suspect, we might discover something about why—in reading and writing for this initiative of the Center—we are engaging in something different from two other practices which this resembles, namely, academic commentary and “ordinary” blogging. Along the way, perhaps, we might learn together something that will provide further resonance to what Amaya-Akkermans has provided us.
In thinking about these two quotations of the same sentence, and how they might function differently—even before thinking about the broader context of the two pieces in which the sentence appears, and the argumentative goals thereof and so on—two things come to light. In the first instance, Arendt stresses that what she is quoting is true—perfectly true, even—and then goes on to tell us not only whose words they are, but also what is remarkable about that person (in the context of trying to think through the supposed opposition between truth and politics, an opposition complicated by the fact of Diensen as someone who speaks truth (“perfect truth” even) while engaging in a practice that is never free of the political. In the second, Arendt simply lets Dinesen speak for her by placing the latter’s words as an independent expression of what most needs to be said in what has to be concerned one of the most important moments in her whole body of work: the chapter in Human Condition where she makes a case for action as the true life of the human being, possible only in our spontaneous appearance to one another in our plurality.
These two gestures to Dinesen, diverging in intent and even as they respond to exactly the same content, point toward something I highlighted when I recently had the privilege to share some thoughts (on the practical and productive importance of rhetoric as the art of seeing what can be persuasive) with the Hannah Arendt Center in March: the importance of fabrication. What is crucial here is that while the one who would “think what we are doing” must always be insatiable in the search for what is, they must also be sensitive and crafty in articulating what they have found in their search: it is not enough to know how to discover truths—be they factual, rational, scientific, or moral; one must also share these with the others. And this requires storytelling, which (as Dinesen knew and lived) entails “knowing what one is doing” in the sense to which Arendt refers in her first quotation.
I take it that what we are trying to do here is very much like what Arendt was trying to do in addressing Dinesen. We want, that is, to engage with our own moment, with the world as it discloses itself to us here and now, but we also recognize that the only way in which that is possible is through a self-constituting practice of speaking aloud to those who might share the world in which we aim to live. We must fabricate, together with the others, the world that appears to, in us and through us.
Arendt sees, and shows us in the feature of her work as an exercise, that such joined creation, of humans in our plurality, best begins when the solitary thinker addresses the others by means of a shared other. That is, thinking does not begin or proceed in isolation, with the sage who withdraws into a cave, or climbs to a highest peak, or (say) retreats into the Black Forest. Rather, we think, as we act, in concert. Quotations serve a beautiful symbol of this fact, but also as a clever means by which to solicit the participation of the others who are needed for our own projects (of thinking, and of world-creation) to have any chance of succeeding.
Why “quote of the week,” then? I am sure that there are more reasons than one. But one, profoundly Arendtian, reason is that we are already halfway home to thinking and acting in Arendtian mode when we understand ourselves as truly beginning to speak only when we speak (in and through, with and against) the words of another, who—as far as we can tell—has told the truth, has fulfilled the demand: legein ta eonta.
"Political institutions, no matter how well or badly designed, depend for continued existence upon acting men; their conservation is achieved by the same means that brought them into being. Independent existence marks the work of art as a product of making; utter dependence upon further acts to keep it in existence marks the state as a product of action."
-Hannah Arendt, ‘What is Freedom?’ in Between Past and Future
Arendt’s polemics against means-end thinking in politics are prominent throughout The Human Condition, and echoed in many of her other writings. Most of her readers have been willing to grant her the dangers of means-end thinking, as expressed in the maxim, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” In this regard, Arendt’s words are indeed unanswerable: ‘We are perhaps the first generation which has become fully aware of the murderous consequences inherent in a line of thought that forces one to admit that all means, provided that they are efficient, are permissible and justified to pursue something defined as an end.’ (HC 229) Nonetheless, many readers have wondered whether she does not over-egg the pudding, so to speak, by so emphatically rejecting the political importance of goal-directed thinking and strategic action.
I think this passage from ‘What is Freedom?’ enables us to respond directly to these natural doubts about Arendt’s account of action in The Human Condition. It is an error, Arendt writes, to regard ‘the state or government as a work of art, as a kind of collective masterpiece’ (BPF 153). To endure, the work of art depends only on a certain degree of care. Cleaning and maintenance, or labour in Arendt’s terms, preserve the art-work, which – as its name indicates – resulted from the activity of work. It is quite otherwise with political institutions: ‘their conservation is achieved by the same means that brought them into being’ – that is, by the concerted action of many persons. In other words, we may easily mistake the nature of the goals at stake in politics, by misconstruing them as ends that might be achieved and endure, needing perhaps just a little ‘spit and polish’ from time to time.
Of course, many political acts do aim to bring about a lasting change in the world. In every case, however, this goal ultimately concerns the terms of on-going human relations. Whatever political aim we think of – someone obtaining political office, a change in the law or the foundation of a new state, even something as material as the erection of a monument or a boundary wall: in each case, unless people alter their conduct and relations in terms of these new realities, they will not, in fact, obtain any reality at all. An elected official can find herself powerless; a law can enter the statute books but remain a dead letter; history knows many vain and ineffectual acts of constitution. A monument or wall are slightly different: they are material objects that may, up to a point, endure with no one’s doing anything more about them. But of course, their coming-to-be rests on an agreement to commission them – that is, on action rather than work. And whether they retain any political relevance, whether they keep memories alive or boundaries solid, whether they become tourist attractions or mere rubble – this depends entirely on the opinions and conduct of the people who live alongside them. If many political acts aim at lasting change, then, many others aim to preserve: ‘the conservation [of any political accomplishment] is achieved by the same means that brought [it] into being.’
In other words, although it may be affected by material structures and written documents, the political realm ultimately consists just in how people conduct themselves toward one another. One of Arendt’s reasons for rejecting means-end thinking is that there is no ‘end’ to politics. Our political action can never strictly look to an end-point, for that could be nothing but the end of history itself (‘Understanding and Politics,’ in Essays in Understanding, 320). Again, we may suspect Arendt of hyperbole that misses the importance of goal-directed action in politics. But her deeper point is that political goals and achievements always concern the terms of on-going human relationships. These may be expressed by offices and laws, monuments or public squares; but they cannot be reified. No written document, not even the most solid and brutal wall, constitutes those term. Only continuing and concerted action, animated by particular principles and enacting certain virtues, does this.
There are no ends in politics, then, because political achievements only endure in the form of actions, principles, and relationships. People’s consent and support; the power that arises from these; the continuing preparedness to abide by the relevant terms – these phenomena of human acting and relating are the essential goal of any political initiative. ‘Means’ and ‘end’ are made of the same stuff, defeating any political theory that separates them and spelling ruin from all political practice that seriously regards actions or persons as mere means to an end. None of this is to deny that there are lasting political achievements, or that responsible political action may be directed toward such goals. The point is just that those achievements endure only if kept alive by ‘acting men’ – and, as Arendt would be sure to add, in the stories we tell about them.
-Garrath Williams, Lancaster University, UK
Michael Weinman - "Pedagogy or demagogy: The dangerous dunamis of the rhetor's art."
Lecture presented by the Arendt Center on the evening of March 27, 2012
Michael Weinman from ECLA of Bard in Berlin spoke Tuesday night and began with a simple claim: "My subject is the power of composed speech." In order to work out the relationship between power and composition (or in other words between ordered discourse and binding force) he opened a trajectory from Aristotle's Rhetoric to Arendt's "Truth in Politics" to contemporary political rhetoric.
Weinman's reading of the Rhetoric focused on the books one and two. In the first book he placed particular emphasis on the role of enthymemes, which he provisionally defined as a kind of syllogism. Within the second book, he highlighted the example of anger as one pathe, one of the "sources of change on account of which people differ in accordance to their judgments." By appealing to common emotion, the speaker can establish a common ground for his argument. In his next step, Weinman developed a parallel between Aristotle and Arendt's idea of storytelling as a means of political narrative that maintains the "factual texture" of the world while still allowing for a limited type of lying that as a "little miracle" demonstrates our freedom in relation to automatic processes.
The third and final step of the talk affirmed a rhetorically committed political practice against purely rational discourse. In Weinman's view, following Aristotle and Arendt, rhetoric must be employed in order to ensure that discursive space "touches the world" (Weinman). In closing he replied to a news article referring to the anger of Americans in the current political situation. While the author suggested that this might not be such a bad thing, Weinman went a step further, saying that anger should be affirmed - not encouraged but recognized as a potential affective basis for discourse that might cut across ideological divides.
The audience posed questions related to Weinman's implicit conception of pedagogy, the specific spheres of relevance of different types of rhetoric for Aristotle, and the relationship between rhetoric and truth.
Recalling the Arendt Center’s conference last fall on the challenge of telling the truth in an age without facts, Weinman’s specification of the "miracle" of the small lie adds depth to the Arendt’s idea of storytelling that creates significance without abandoning greater factual context. In opening this perspective, however, it also raises the question of the precise relation between these necessary small lies and a dangerous greater disavowal of the world as it is.
Michael Weinman is presently a visiting academic at ECLA Bard. He has previously taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, and in the Department of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, Israel.
Weinman has published several books including the recently published, Language, Time and Identity in Woolf’s The Waves: The Subject in Empire’s Shadow and Pleasure in Aristotle’s Ethics.
Watch the lecture here.
“Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.”
-Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Between Past and Future
When Arendt first refers to political representation, we might think we are on familiar ground. After all, the question of how to move from the citizen to the representative was a vexing problem for the founders of the United States, one that resulted in the creation of the House of Representatives and Senate. The Great Compromise was a way of balancing the representation of small and large states, and the troubling Three-Fifths Compromise sought to guarantee representation to the southern states while preserving slavery. Today, the debate over the influence of lobbyists, political donations, and corporate personhood speaks to a renewed concern over how politicians can best represent the interests of voters.
Arendt does address questions of political representation of this sort in her detailed examination of the move from the late colonial period to the passage of the Constitution in On Revolution. In the above quote, she speaks of “political thought” in terms of the mental process of an individual—one who asks himself, "what would others who are absent think?" Moving from the objective statement of the first sentence to the subjective “I” of the second, she performs what she explains, bringing us inside the mind of someone who thinks through representation. The political subject does not hold on to essential or deeply rooted beliefs, but instead considers one position and then another. One might think of a sequence in a movie that switches between subjective angles, showing how a number of characters view a scene without ever moving back to an objective angle that shows them from outside. The effort of representative thinking is, first, to think from as many viewpoints as possible. This is, at least in part, what Arendt means by "enlarged thinking."
It is important to emphasize that representation does not simply repeat or copy the multiple points of view of others. One does not, for example, ask others what they think and then consider it. Instead, she says those to whom the standpoint belongs are “are absent.” Since they are not there, a space opens in which I can create a version of their view in my mind.
Rather than re-presentation in the strict sense, it is a matter of creatively presenting. In representing all of those who are absent, I must then seek to make a judgment and judge what opinion all of those people would and should share. In such a way, political thought, as representational thought, requires that I make judgments about what all people should agree upon.
From here we would want to move to a careful study of Arendt’s claim that Kant’s aesthetic third Critique, the Critique of Judgment, has important political implications that Kant himself never recognized. A condensed version of this argument in Between Past and Future speaks of "wooing," or persuading, others from one's individual position. An example might be drawn from the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has gained attention in part as a platform for individual stories about injustice. From an Arendtian point of view, the success of the movement would depend on making personal insights universal by imaginatively listening to others. In this way, one does not merely tell of one's own experience but represents the truth. Of course, to speak of representing the truth here requires that we guard against traditional prejudices. For Arendt the truth and the universal are not pre-given but constructed through action an not eternal but rather exist for a determinite period of time.