Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Totalitarianism and the Sand Storm


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

-Bill Dixon


Amor Mundi 2/2/14


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Right to Not Care

womanEvincing a particular kind of anti-political judgment, the editors at N+1 are trying to wiggle their way out of the internet's world of opinion: "We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation. We are all cosmopolitans online, attentive to everything; but the internet is not one big General Assembly, and the controversies planted in establishment newspapers aren’t always the sort of problems that require the patient attention of a working group. Some opinions deserve radical stack (like #solidarityisforwhitewomen), but the glorified publicity stunts that dress up in opinion’s clothes to get viral distribution in the form of “debate” (Open Letters to Miley Cyrus) do not. We ought to be selective about who deserves our good faith. Some people duke it out to solve problems. Others pick fights for the spectacle, knowing we’ll stick around to watch. In the meantime they’ll sell us refreshments, as we loiter on the sideline, waiting to see which troll will out-troll his troll." Read Roger Berkowitz’s  response on the Arendt Center blog.

Ignorance Praised in Art and Education

artBarry Schwabsky wonders what the proliferation of MFAs and not Ph.D.’s in art means for artists. Could it be dangerous and lead to intellectually gifted but sterile artists? Don’t worry, Schwabsky writes, since art schools have adopted ignorance as their motto: "Just as no one family of techniques can be prescribed as the right content of art education, neither can any one set of ideas. The instructor’s knowledge and experience are always in principal too limited for the job they’ve taken on. They’re supposed to help usher their students into the not-yet-known, toward what, in Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, the Canadian artist Jon Pylypchuk calls "another place where there was no grade and just a friend telling you that what you did was good."  Sooner or later teaching art, and making art, is about coming to terms with one’s own ignorance.  Maybe that’s why the art world’s favorite philosopher these days is, whose best-known book—published in France in 1987 and translated into English four years later—is called The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Its subject is Joseph Jacotot, a forgotten French educator of the early nineteenth century whose “intellectual adventure” was founded on a paradoxical—one might be tempted to say nonsensical—principle: “He proclaimed that one could teach what one didn’t know.” The educator’s job, since teacher and student are assumed to be equal in intelligence, is nothing more than to “use all possible means of convincing the ignorant one of his power” of understanding. The teacher is there simply to remind the learner to pay attention, to keep working.” It might be helpful to recall Arendt’s argument in “The Crisis in Education,” that teaching must teach something if it is to give students the possibility of rebuilding the world anew.

Not Dead Yet

bookDigital journalism professor Meredith Borussard explains why she's banned e-readers from her classroom, and gives a short history of the book while she's at it: "The user interface for a book has been refined for centuries. What we call a ‘printed book’ today is a codex, a set of uniformly sized pages bound between covers. It was adopted around the 3rd or 4th century. A book’s interface is nearly perfect. It is portable, it never runs out of power, and you can write notes in it if you forget your notebook. The physical book is seamlessly integrated into the educational experience: It fits on any desk, even those cramped little writing surfaces that flip up from the side of a seat. You can sit around a table with 15 other people, each of whom has a book, and you can all see each other to have a conversation about what is on the page."

Hopelessly American

flagCarol Becker confronts “the first time I was aware that the world had changed and that "we" (my age group) were no longer the "younger generation." Another group was ascending, and its members appeared confoundedly different from us.” Becker reflects on what it is that identifies her generation and suggests that their idealism was hopelessly American: “I was asked if I still believed in making a “better world.” I was taken aback. I could not imagine a life where that was not a goal, nor a world incapable of movement forward. Having grown up believing in progress–not the progress of technology or material wealth but that of personal and social transformation—it probably is the concept of “hope” that most separates my generation from those that immediately followed. Perhaps I am delusional and, like all who suffer from delusions, unable to function without them. Or it could be that I am “hopelessly American”, as my students in Greece used to say, because of my conviction that the world can be changed for the better and that I or we, must have a hand in that process.”

The Last of the Unjust

filmClaude Lanzmann, maker of the magisterial Shoah, has been deeply critical of Hannah Arendt’s appraisal of Jewish leaders. Now Lanzmann has a new film out that is proving almost as controversial as Eichmann in Jerusalem. I wrote about it earlier, here. This weekend, Jeremy Gerard has a short profile of the movie in the New York Times.  “Life and death in Theresienstadt were overseen by successive heads of the Judenrat, the Jewish council set up by the Nazis in ghettos and camps to enforce Nazi orders and to oversee labor and the transfer of people to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau and other camps. The first two were executed when their usefulness ended. The final elder, serving from December 1944 to May 1945, was a brilliant Viennese rabbi, Benjamin Murmelstein, who called himself “the last of the unjust,” a phrase that Mr. Lanzmann appropriated for the title of his 3-hour-40-minute look at this divisive figure. In the documentary, opening on Feb. 7, he revisits an intense week he spent filming Rabbi Murmelstein nearly four decades ago. Some critics and Holocaust survivors have found the new documentary overly sympathetic to the rabbi; Mr. Lanzmann himself has therefore become an unlikely player in the continuing debate over how we are to remember Jews who worked in any way with the Nazis.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Ian Storey writes about Arendt, Steve McQueen, and Kanye West. And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz takes on the editors at N+1 who berate the internet for inciting too much free speech.


The Unproductive Labor of Politics: Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith


Richard Halpern, “Eclipse of Action: Hamlet and the Political Economy of Playing,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2008, pp. 450-482

As he formulates an original response to the classic problem of Hamlet’s non-action, Halpern offers one of the few critical analyses of Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith in The Human Condition. He shows how Arendt draws on Smith’s concepts of productive and unproductive labor to articulate her key concepts of work and labor. Moreover, his close reading draws our attention to an intriguing paradox in the temporality of action that may indicate a corrective—albeit a difficult one—to the current demand for instant gratification that often leads to cynicism in the face of great political challenges.

Halpern reminds us that Aristotle separates action from labor; Smith replaces action with production; and Arendt seeks to restore action to a place of prominence in the political realm. Arendt explicitly says that “the distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor” (HC 87). She does not simply take over Smith’s idea, but wishes to transfer his distinction from his own economic system (the “prejudice” of his own thought) to her own thinking of labor and work.  Halpern’s analysis of Arendt’s move helps us start to think about her surprising appeal to 18th century economic theory. Moreover, it her discussion of Smith (and better known critique of Marx), I see her posing an even broader question: what does it mean to be productive and what are the appropriate spheres of different types of productivity?


Within the realm of production, Halpern looks at how Smith offers a further distinction in Book 2, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, under the heading “Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labor”:

There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976), 351.)

Smith draws a distinction between labor that holds or builds value (say the manufacture of a chair), and labor that evaporates the moment the worker completes it (such as cleaning the house or washing clothes). Classical political economists of the 18th and 19th century engaged in wide ranging debates over what should “count” as value before capitalist countries agreed on the ratio of labour to output or per capita GDP as the standard; socialist countries, following the USSR, adopted an alternative “material product system” that prioritized the amount of goods. In a time of environmental change, this glimpse into the history of economic theory may offer a helpful reminder that society can decide to change the standard of economic success.

According to Halpern, Arendt draws from Smith not to rehabilitate an outmoded aspect of economic theory, but to draw inspiration for her creation of distinct conceptual spaces for labor, work, and action. Specifically, she aligns Smith’s “unproductive labor” with her circular conception of labor and “productive labor” with her linear conception of work. This does not mean that labor is unproductive but it does require a clarification of different types of productivity. I see it as useful to keep the discussion on productivity since these spheres of private life and cultural and industrial economy then offer a contrast to the political sphere where action can happen. Action is neither circular like labor, nor linear like work, but has its own peculiar directionality and temporality. Halpern’s analysis helpfully zeroes in on the perplexing relation between the ephemerality of labor and action and action’s desire for permanence:

The temporal paradox of the political is that while it aims at immortality, action and speech are, in themselves, evanescent: “Left to themselves, they lack not only the tangibility of other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption” (HC 95). Like Smith’s unproductive labor, action disappears in the moment of its occurrence because it leaves no material trace behind. (Halpern, 457)

Politics demands an extraordinary effort. It asks that one expend energy indefinitely for an uncertain reward. Discussion and debate goes on and on, only occasionally clicking with spectacular agreement or deflationary compromise. Arendt’s analysis can help us perceive the difficulty of contemporary politics that attempts to fit into consumer culture that preserves, and thus remembers, nothing.

Arendt’s attention to the aspects of debate and negotiation that might be seen as unproductive (a dimension that in other parts of the Human Condition she relates to menial work, again often in relation to Smith) offers a corrective to a misguided understanding of politics that leads to frustration and despair.Even if we are not at the extreme level of the menial functioning of a New England town hall meeting debating the budget for potholes or an Occupy Wall Street discussion that requires unanimous consensus for closure, politics works in a different temporality. Rather than the fever pitched accusations of crisis that in the U.S. actually covers up rather than encourage political risk, a more humble sense of public debate as requiring something like the patience of the menial task may be a corrective.

Political action in Arendt’s sense differs from work in being freed from a fixed goal. She links this freedom, which for her is based on self-referentiality, to drama:

Arendt’s discomfort with the economic dimension of theater reveals itself when she criticizes Adam Smith for grouping actors, along with churchmen, lawyers, musicians, and others, as unproductive laborers and hence as lowly cousins of the menial servant (HC 207). Arendt would distinguish all of these activities from labor in that they “do not pursue an end . . . and leave no work behind . . . , but exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself ” (206). Smith’s inclusion of these autotelic activities under the category of labor is for Arendt a sign of the degradation that human activity had already undergone by the early days of the modern era. By contrast, “It was precisely these occupations—healing, flute-playing, play-acting—which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man” (207–21). What Arendt overlooks is that—already in the ancient world—healing, flute playing, and playacting became remunerated professions and differed in this respect from politics, which was not the work of a professional class of politicians. (Halpern 458)

Arendt agrees that actors on the stage perform fleeting scenes, but wishes to link this to “the highest and greatest activities of man,” ie. those of politics. Halpern argues that in fact, actors in ancient times already worked for wages and were thus not independent like citizens in their roles as politicians. Nonetheless, Arendt shows us that in the modern period we can learn something about acting in politics from acting in the arts. The key point for Halpern is that drama, etc. are “autotelic activities.” They do not even keep up the house like menial work; they have their own end and really evaporate in reaching this end. Political action works along an undecidable edge: even less productive than labor but at any moment potentially the most lasting. Against the odds, politics holds open the space in which something new can begin and thus renew the human world against the circular forces of nature.

One could reasonably argue that in his focus on the connection between labor and action, Halpern fails to adequately emphasize the importance of work. In a world of labor and the victory of animal laborans, there is no work to preserve action and no polis/world to give action memorialization. Indeed, we face the danger of the collapse of the world into the “waste economy” (HC 134) and the seductions to action disappear. However, Halpern does not say that play is action for Arendt but rather, as I understand his argument, that it there is an aspect of action that is like play. Action requires debate that may seem to be going nowhere, or just be undertaken for its own sake up to the moment that it takes a risk. When it dares to venture into the public realm, action clearly very different from play as a hobby.

Labor is both constant and fleeting. On the one hand, the demands of the body never end, nor do the cycles of nature. On the other hand, labor is also fleeting in that its mode of production only temporarily maintains life. Action is also fleeting from the perspective that the risk it takes often evaporates but has the utmost political constancy when one considers those actions that succeed in forming the power of a new beginning.


In the remainder of the article, Halpern moves from The Human Condition to Hamlet, arguing that Shakespeare replaces action on the classical model of tragedy with the ceaseless activity of Hamlet’s thoughts. This activity runs in circles like unproductive labor in Smith and labor in Arendt rather than the action of Aristotle’s aesthetic and Arendt’s political ideal. From an Arendtian point of view, the modernity of the drama reveals a challenge to politics, the challenge of a time out of joint that action has to face again and again.

-Jeffrey Champlin


Arendt on Reproductive Technologies, Labor, and Action


“Hannah Arendt, Feminist Theorizing, and the Debate Over New Reproductive Technologies”

Kimberley F. Curtis, Polity, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 1995), pp. 159-187

Kimberley Curtis employs Arendt’s conceptual categories in The Human Condition to critically distinguish between scientific interventions that control fertility and those that endeavor to produce fertility. In doing so, she both offers an alternative to current feminist stances toward reproductive technology and contributes to our understanding of the relation between labor and action in the Arendt’s work.

Politically, Curtis responds to “liberal feminists” who tend to favor all new developments as instruments of choice, “socialist feminists” who also favor them in the broader context of their project of controlling nature through production, and “radical feminists” who oppose new reproductive technologies as instruments of patriarchal oppression. In contrast, Curtis proposes that:

[Arendt's] theorizing [...] powerfully embraces the need for control, which has been the cornerstone of feminist concern over reproductive technologies, while also offering some critical grounds for limiting the development and use of these technologies and practices.

Thus, Curtis adopts some of the enthusiasm of liberal feminists and some of the reservations of radical feminists. Socialist feminists, however, in her view make a serious mistake in their justification of their stance. She agrees with Arendt that nature must emphatically remain separate from human artifice. Arendt’s distinction between labor and work codifies this distinction. At the same time though, critics often over-emphasize the separation between the two realms. Curtis articulates her objection by eloquently linking labor and work to action:

To be fully human we must be, to some extent, subject to necessity's compulsion; we must feel its impact. Not to be so subject is to risk losing both the very capacity for action that makes us human and the hope for and renewal of the world it promises. There is multidimensionality to Arendt's conception of necessity that feminists (as well as most other students of Arendt) have largely ignored.

“Necessity” here corresponds to “labor” in Arendt’s schema. Rather than viewing the steps of labor, work, and action as a gradual progression toward freedom, Curtis proposes these terms as equally important “viewpoints.” The actor sees labor as an anchor and dead weight in light of his effort to start something new. Homo faber, the one who works to create a permanent world, sees the natural world of labor as raw material. Humans as laboring animals, Animal laborans, enjoy, at least to an extent, their immersion in natural life. Here, one might object that Arendt’s momentary praise of “the sheer bliss of being alive,” takes on an ironic tinge in light of her larger goal of defending action.


Curtis’s next defense of labor stands up better to scrutiny: she sees the darkness and obscurity that Arendt attributes to the realm of labor as a very important way of describing the “givenness” of existence. In protecting the private realm in this way, Arendt ensures a space between labor and work that allows the creation of different (at least potentially better) worlds in work free of deterministic forces.

Curtis then makes another argument that, in contrast to the previous one, emphasizes the continual pressure of the life of the body:

[O]ur very capacity for initiative is tied to this sense of compulsion and unfreedom. Without the impact of nature's compulsion bearing down upon us, we have no way of distinguishing between a state of freedom and one of enslavement.

Technology, in Curtis’s view, can ameliorate our sense of the compulsion of nature but must not go as far as to do away with it. With an apparent paradox, she ends with an appeal to a “conservative attitude” to protect the possibility of novelty:

[A] conservative attitude is appropriate here: one that protects the newness of the new from the impulses of those who come from an established world which to the new will always appear old- no matter how revolutionary no matter how much a part of creating conditions of new freedom those from that established world conceive their actions to be.

Returning, in conclusion, to feminist approaches to reproductive technologies, Curtis admits that this “conservative attitude” has been, and will likely continue to be, instrumentalized politically in favor of patriarchal and economic interests. In this light, she sees the need to reflect on these larger political forces with the goal of holding open the tension between freedom of reproductive control and the dangers inherent in technological worldviews that replace nature and the new.

-Jeffrey Champlin


Arendt versus Occupy


Review of:  Danny Michelsen and Franz Walter, Unpolitical Democracy: On the Crisis of Representation  [Unpolitische Demokratie: Zur Krise der Repräsentation (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2013)]

In this new study, Danny Michelsen and Franz Walter of the Institute of Democracy Research at Göttingen University examine the problem of democratic representation in terms of a paradox: democracy wishes to include everyone, but as its scope expands it requires ever more mediation. While Athens flourished with direct democracy, its modern forms require representatives since everyone can no longer "fit in the same room."

Walter is one of the most prolific scholars of political parties in Germany and the book connects and Arendtian focus on politics with practical concerns of how parties acquire legitimacy and reach agreement through negotiation. The reference to the "political" in the title indicates the authors' debt to Arendt’s conception of the term. They orient their investigation in the first chapter in terms of her “refreshing contrast to output oriented theories of democracy, which neglect political participation in favor of efficiency criteria.” (28) From On Revolution, they speak of specifically of “how to conserve and stabilize the republican moment of founding, while at the same time renewing it and continuing it.” (27)  They also draw on her work to set out a broad range of challenges to politics, such as increased emphasis on the private realm, expansion of the sphere of the economy, and the increased role of experts. Most pointedly, the authors speak of a "spectator democracy" that threatens the essence of politics in Arendt's sense since it does without action.


When people believe they can save the environment by buying certain products rather than engaging in political initiatives and turn to anonymous internet forums rather than signed pronouncements in the public sphere, democracies lose their constitutive power.

Yet the authors do not merely address and illustrate these threats, but deepen their inquiry by critiquing the most popular responses to the crisis in politics in recent years. These responses mainly fall under the category of the wish for greater transparency and direct democracy. In other words, the hope of quickly cutting through the many obstacles to the true wishes of the people. Their discussions of the German Pirate Party and the Occupy Movement are particularly illuminating.

The German Pirate Party entered the Berlin parliament in 2011 when they crossed the threshold of 5% of votes. It began as a group that sought to defend privacy rights in the digital age but developed to advocate bringing horizontal structures and open source models to government. One of their key concepts is "liquid democracy," in which party members can follow debate over bills in the parliament in real time through special software. Many elected officials then said they would vote exactly as the members wished on each bill. Michelsen and Walter argue that such a stance would make them delegates rather than representatives. While acknowledging the growing power of experts in the government and the problems they can cause, the authors ask if each individual voter can really be expected to understand the complicated technological and economic issues of the day such that they can wisely vote directly on the issues at hand.

 Michelsen and Walter call Occupy Wall Street "anarchist" in its explicit rejection of political representation and calls for direct democracy. In a subtlety argued analysis though, they praise the movement’s attempt to rejuvenate politics by focusing on new forms of public deliberation, and even accord value to political experiments that set themselves off from the broader norms of national discourse. Like others, the authors criticize the failure of this group to put forth concrete demands that could then be debated in the public realm. However they do not simply discount the movement for this reason but helpfully figure their objection in terms of an inability to link the moment of political experiment with a later moment of integration into public discourse. From an Arendtian perspective, one might see this in terms of enthusiasm for emphasis on fundamental idea of politics as action but as disappointing in terms of the concrete requirements of power.

In their conclusion, the authors return to Arendt's ideas of local participation. At higher levels of government through, they defend Social Democracy in the German tradition as a way of integrating society and politics – against proponents of anarchism, communism, and free market capitalism. The breadth of their inquiry is refreshing, as is their careful work in distinguishing movements that have left wing components that U.S. commentators often blur. The book largely consists of condensed assessments of academic papers on recent debates over political representation but is written in an accessible style that explicates and digs deeper into recent key terms in political culture. At over 400 pages, it provides a comprehensive overview not only of challenges to political participation, but of proposed answers to current challenges as well.

The authors ultimately argue for a more modest conception of democracy that admits the need for negotiation between representatives and a large role for expert opinion. Indeed, they go so far as to claim that inflated rhetoric around the ideal of democracy provides cover for those who wish to undermine its actual strength. This position will be hard to accept for advocates of radical democracy as defended, for example, by Rancière and Derrida. In a broader sense though, Michelsen and Walter offer a probing critique of the idea that we could do without representation in politics and challenge us to think of how to renew politics within the  demands of mediation that its current scope requires.

-Jeffrey Champlin


The False Culture of Utility


“Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order.”

--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”

Hannah Arendt defines the cultural as that which gives testimony to the past and in preserving the past helps constitute  our common world.  A cultural object embodies the human goal of achieving “immortality,” which as Arendt explains in The Human Condition is not the same as eternal life or the biological propagation of the species. Immortality concerns the life of a people and is ultimately political.  It refers to the particular type of transcendence afforded by political action. In “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt shows how culture has a political role insofar as it creates durable and lasting objects that contribute to the immortality of a people.


The danger Arendt confronts in “The Crisis in Culture” is that mass culture makes art disposable and thus threatens the political ability of cultural life to produce lasting and immortal objects.  The source of her worry is not an invasion of culture by the low and the base, but a sort of cannibalization of culture by itself.  The problem is that mass culture swallows culture and subsumes it under the rubric of need.  The immortal is degraded to a biological necessity, to be endlessly consumed and reproduced. Durable cultural objects that constitute a meaningful political world are thereby consumed, eroding the common world that is the place of politics.

Arendt’s point is first that mass culture—like all culture under the sway of society— is too often confused with status, self-fulfillment, or entertainment. In the name of status or entertainment, cultural achievements are stripped down and repackaged as something to be consumed in the life process.  She would argue that this happens every time Hamlet is made into a movie or the Iliad is condensed into a children’s edition. By making culture accessible for those who would use it to improve themselves, the mass-culture industry makes it less and less likely that we will ever confront the great works of our past in their most challenging form.  Eventually, the watering down of once immortal works can make it difficult or impossible to perceive the importance of culture and cultural education for humanity and our common world.

However, Arendt does not offer simply a banal critique of reality television as fast-food.  We might recognize a more insidious form of the risks she describes in the new intellectualism that marks the politics, or anti-politics of the tech milieu. What has been termed Silicon Valley’s anti-intellectualism should instead be understood as a forced colonization of the space potentially inhabited by the public intellectual.

The prophets of the tech world see themselves as fulfilling a social and political duty through enterprise.  They unselfconsciously describe their creations as sources of liberation, democracy, and revolution.  And yet they eschew politics. Their abnegation of overt political activity is comprehensible in that, for them, ‘politics’ is always already contained in the project of saving the world through technological progress.

We see such exemplars of technological cultural salvation all around us.  Scholars and cultural figures are invited to lecture at the “campuses” of Apple and Google, and their ideas get digested into the business model or spit back out in the form of TED talks.  Even Burning Man, originally a ‘counter-cultural’ annual desert festival with utopian pretensions, has been sucked into the vortex, such that Stanford Professor Fred Turner could give a powerpoint lecture titled, “Burning Man at Google: A cultural infrastructure for new media production.”  The abstract for his article in New Media & Society is even more suggestive: “…this article explores the ways in which Burning Man’s bohemian ethos supports new forms of production emerging in Silicon Valley and especially at Google. It shows how elements of the Burning Man world – including the building of a sociotechnical commons, participation in project-based artistic labor and the fusion of social and professional interaction – help to shape and legitimate the collaborative manufacturing processes driving the growth of Google and other firms.”  Turner’s conclusion virtually replicates Arendt’s differentiation between nineteenth century philistinism and the omniphagic nature of mass culture:

In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial era, the celebration of art provided an occasion for the display of wealth. In the 21st century, under conditions of commons-based peer production, it has become an occasion for its [i.e. wealth] creation.

The instrumentalization of culture within polite society has given way to the digestion and reconstitution of culture in the form of gadgets meant to increase convenience.  Would-be cultural objects become rungs on the hamster wheel of life’s progress. Progress as the ultimate goal of technological cultural innovation is a vague concept because it is taken for granted due to the self-contained and self-enclosed nature of the industry.  Where it is defined, it is demonstrated through examples, such as the implementation of the smart parking meter or the use of cloud networking in order to better administer services to San Francisco’s homeless population.

In a recent New Yorker article on the tech revolutionaries, George Packer writes, “A favorite word in tech circles is ‘frictionless.’ It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world.” Progress here is the increasingly efficient administration of life.

When tech does leave its insular environment and direct its energies outward, its engagements reflect both its solipsism and focus on utility, which for Arendt go together.  The Gates Foundation’s substantial investments in higher education impose the quantitatively verifiable standard of degree completion as the sole or main objective, which seems odd in itself, given Gates’ notoriety as a Harvard drop-out.  The efforts of the Foundation aim less at placing Shakespeare in the hands of every fast-food worker, and more towards redirecting all of cultural education toward the development of a cheap version of utilitarian aptitude.  Such tech intellectualism will ask, “What is the point of slaving over the so-called classics?” The claim is that the liberal arts vision of university education is inseparable from elitist designs, based on an exclusive definition of what ‘culture’ should be.

“What is the use?” is the wrong question, though, and it is tinged by the solipsistic mentality of a tech elite that dare not speak its name.  The tech intellectual presents the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, despite the fact that capital gains in the sector bare a large burden of the blame for this country’s soaring rate of inequality.  This false sense of equality fosters a naïve view of political and social issues.  It also fuels tech’s hubristic desire to remake the world in its own image:  Life is about frictionless success and efficient progress, and these can be realized via the technological fix.  “It worked for us, what’s the matter with you?”


For Arendt, culture is not meant to be useful for employment or even the lofty purpose of self-cultivation; our relationship to culture nurtures our ability to make judgments.  Kant’s discussion of taste and “common sense” informs her notion of the faculty of judgment in art and politics.  In matters of taste, judging rests on the human ability to enlarge one’s mind and think with reference to an “anticipated communication with others” and “potential agreement.”  Common sense, as she uses it, “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.”  Culture and politics are linked in that both can only exist in a world that is shared.  She writes:

Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.

That culture and politics are about enacting judgments, rather than truth or technique for the advancement of biological life, is a point that is clearly missed by the tech intellectuals.  The establishment of utility as the sole goal of higher education represents only one section of a general lens through which the world appears only as a series of practical problems to be figured out.  In this paradoxical utopia of mass accessibility, insulation, and narrow-mindedness, applied knowledge threatens to occupy and pervert culture at the expense of political action and care for our common world.

-Jennifer Hudson


Amor Mundi Newsletter – 9/1/13


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Norman Rush's Subtle Writing

rushWyatt Mason of the Arendt Center has a deeply honest and invigorating feature essay on the writer Norman Rush in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. Rush is the author of Mating (winner of the National Book Award), Mortals, and Whites (a book of stories which was scandalously denied a Pulitzer Prize in a story Mason unearths for the first time).  Subtle Bodies, Rush's third novel, will be published this month.   Mason writes: "An awareness of the mechanism - of how our minds work, of the transits between self-certainty and self-doubt and the endless inner arbitrations litigating each - is a central Rushian preoccupation. Of course, most works of fiction engage, at some level, with the imaginative leap that allows us to cross into the cloistered consciousness of another. But Rush’s own demonstration of that process - of voice as a measure of the mind - has been unusual." Rush wants his novels to make a difference, to change the world. He asks: "How can I say this without seeming grandiose? The sense of things in the world has come to feel increasingly apocalyptic. In a personal sense, the parts of the world that I follow and am interested in, things seem to be going quite ... badly. Increasingly so. That raises questions of what writing is for. And as I was writing this book, this feeling was deepening in me, and there’s an occult connection between what you do and what its potential significance is in a time of crisis. What does it do? ... The answer is you do your witness and you see what comes out.”

The Touching Innocence of the NSA's Defenders

msaPeggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal has a clear-eyed take on the dangers of the NSA and the innocence of those who think that collected information will not be misused. She gleans important lessons from Open Secret, the memoir of Stella Rimington, who in the early 1990s served as director-general of MI5, the British domestic spy agency. Noonan’s conclusions are important: “There are too many built-in dynamics that make the national-security state want to grow, from legitimate fears of terrorism, to bureaucratic pride, to the flaws in human nature. And there are too many dynamics that will allow it to grow. The aftermath of 9/11 happened to coincide with a new burst in American technological innovation and discovery: The government has the ways and means to do pretty much anything now, and if they can do it they will do it…. If you assume all the information that can and will be gleaned will be confined to NSA and national security purposes, you are not sufficiently imaginative or informed. If you believe the information will never be used wrongly or recklessly, you are touchingly innocent.”

The Humanity of Drones

droneFour years ago Ronald Arkin spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center and argued that artificially intelligence weapons systems carried the potential to make war more humane. Human warriors get tired, get angry, and get scared, leading them to make mistakes, take revenge, and shoot blindly at anything that moves. Machines can be programmed to only shoot once certain legal and ethical conditions have been confirmed. Which leads to the paradox that war might become more humane as it becomes less human. This indeed is Michael W. Lewis’ argument in a recent post in the Atlantic: “Like any other weapons system, drones have caused civilian casualties. But they also have the potential to dramatically reduce civilian casualties in armed conflicts, and particularly in counterinsurgencies. Their ability to follow targets for days or weeks accomplishes two things that contribute to saving the lives of innocents: First, it confirms that the target is engaged in the behavior that put them on the target list, reducing the likelihood of striking someone based on faulty intelligence. Second, by establishing a "pattern of life" for the intended target, it allows operators to predict when the target will be sufficiently isolated to allow a strike that is unlikely to harm civilians.”

The Crisis in Writing

ereaderThere's been a lot of hand wringing about the newly digital world is doing to publishing, which, historically, was about publishing books, newspapers, and magazines that people could actually hold in their hands. As we've increasingly moved online, publishing has gone with it-- but is this transition changing just the way we read? Or the way we write as well? In a long essay with many threads, Thomas Larson suggests that's exactly what's happening. "Technology," he believes" has changed the writer's traditional role into that of the "author—that is, the private persona of the print-based writer is being overtaken by the public persona of the multimedia author. To be heard in the news din of our culture (internet and cable TV), writers add audio, video, and, if possible, a TV presence to their kit bags." Later, striking an Arendtian note, he adds that "When text rattles this many bells and whistles, it becomes as multiple and distractible as we are...  I find this performative side of the literary equation, which the device offers and whose buttons I press, is doing a number on the writing side." Still, he concludes with a note of hope. Maybe this is just new, and we're not used to it yet. The answer, he seems to think, lies in new, what he calls transliterate, forms.

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

immortalAdam Leith Gollner, author of the newly published The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever, investigates the tantalizing promise of the afterlife: "When the four-thousand-year-old Edwin Smith Papyrus first resurfaced, it seemed to contain ancient methods of rejuvenation. The Egyptian scroll commences with a tantalizing promise: 'The beginning of the book for making an old man into a youth …' Once the hieratic scribbles were fully decrypted, however, the directives turned out to be a base recipe for fenugreek oil—used to mask liver spots and as a hair restorative for balding men."

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, George Fitzi examines what might be coming in the way humans relate to machines.

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"

Olin Hall, Bard College
Learn more here.


Niels Bohr on Thinking


"How wonderful that we have met with a paradox.  Now we have some hope of making progress. "

-Niels Bohr



Amor Mundi 5/12/13


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Closing Arguments at Guantanamo

barbedWith the conditions at the United States military detention facility in Guantanamo recently coming under scrutiny comes renewed attention to the case of Mohammed Jawad, the first Guantanamo detainee to testify, under oath and to a military commission, that he had been tortured while being held. Last month, a dramatic reading of statements made by Jawad's lawyer, David Frakt, juxtaposed with statements made by the case's lead prosecutor, Darrel Vandervelde, who left the military in order to help free Jawad, was held at the Pen World Voices Festival of International Literature. In their statements, both men use the language of Constitutionality to suggest that, by torturing detainees such as Jawad, "America," as Frakt puts it, "lost a little of its greatness." Vandervelde writes of his choice to testify in favor of Jawad: "I did it because I believe in truth, justice, the rule of law, and our common humanity. I did it for Mohammed Jawad, I did it because it was my duty, and I did it for us all."

A.O. Hirschman, Philosopher of the World

hirschCass Sunstein summarizes Jeremy Adelman's recent, and massive, biography of the twentieth century scholar Albert Hirschman. Describing him as a thinker whose work has direct relevance to today's questions, Sunstein both praises Adelman's work and Hirschman's, saying of the latter: "He insisted that human history provides stories, intricate and often nonrepeatable,' which 'look more like tricks history has up its sleeve than like social-scientific regularities, not to speak of laws.'" Hirschman sought, Sunstein writes, "to "prove Hamlet wrong." In Shakespeare's account, Hamlet is immobilized and defeated by doubt. Hirschman was a great believer in doubt-he never doubted it-and he certainly doubted his own convictions. At a conference designed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his first book, who else would take the opportunity to show that one of his own central arguments was wrong? Who else would publish an essay in The American Economic Review exploring the "overproduction of opinionated opinion," questioning the value of having strong opinions, and emphasizing the importance of doubting one's opinions and even one's tastes? Hirschman thought that strong opinions, as such, "might be dangerous to the health of our democracy," because they are an obstacle to mutual understanding and constructive problem-solving. Writing in 1989, he was not speaking of the current political culture, but he might as well have been."

The Anarchist Paradox

nyseKelefa Sanneh reviews in The New Yorker; The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement by David Graeber and Two Cheers for Anarchism by James C. Scott. Graeber, an anthropologist, became famous as one of the intellectual leaders of Occupy Wall Street. Scott is also an anthropologist and a fellow anarchist. "Graeber did his anthropological field work in the highlands of Madagascar, and Scott did his in Southeast Asia, but their conclusions were similar. Both of them encountered communities that lived more or less autonomously, finding ways to resist or ignore whatever governments claimed jurisdiction over them. And both are eager to expand the history of lived anarchism beyond Paris and Catalonia; it is, they argue, broader and more common than we've been taught." Sanneh understands that "in America anarchism's appeal surely has something to do with the seeming durability of our current arrangement, and the inexorable growth of the government that maintains it. Such is the power of a sprawling and sophisticated state: the bigger it gets, the easier it becomes for us to imagine that we could live without it."

The Death of a Scholar

scholarJulia Hobsbawm gives her father, the historian Eric Hobsbawm, a eulogy with familial warmth that is well aware of his global stature. Still, she focuses mostly on his love for her, for ideas and, importantly, for books of all kinds: "I called his mobile to check in and asked if he needed anything. He had a big sweet tooth and I expected him to ask for some fruit jellies, a favourite, or perhaps some dark chocolate. 'I managed to bring a most turgid book in with me, he said apologetically. 'Would you mind getting me something better?' It turned out that the book he had picked up, assuming it was the last he would ever hold, was a German edition of The Brothers Karamazov, and with the crisis over it was now not to his liking. Knowing his weakness for thrillers - one book wall is covered in the Penguin crime paperbacks with the green spines, his old Ed McBains and more recently Elmore Leonards - I brought him in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. It got him through the hospital tedium and even prompted a rather racy discussion about how much marital bed-hopping it featured. 'Too much,' he declared."

In Praise of the Self Suspicious Journalist

janetAlice Gregory praises author and essayist Janet Malcolm, highlighting in particular her suspicion of the truth claim of any narrative: "Malcolm would say that any story-and especially a well-told and well-reported one-is inevitably a distortion. Throughout her career, she has insisted upon this. 'The realities of characters in fiction-and of their cousins in journalism-derives precisely from the bold, almost childlike strokes from which they are drawn,' she writes in Reading Chekhov."


Featured Upcoming Event

The Official U.S. Opening of the biopic, Hannah Arendt in NYC

movie posterMay 29, 2013 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., NYC at 7:45 PM

 Film followed by discussion with the director; Margarethe von Trotta, the screenwriter; Pam Katz, Barbara Sukowa and Janet McTeer (playing Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy.)

 Buy tickets and learn more here.


From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Arendt Center Blog, Jeffrey Champlin talks Arnold Geheln on Arendt and considers Arendt's relationship to philosophical anthropology.



A Sorry Bunch of Dwarfs

Freeman Dyson, the eclectic physicist, took good aim at philosophy last week in a review of the silly book by Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?" An Existential Detective Story. Holt went around to "a portrait gallery of leading modern philosophers," and asked them the Leibnizian question: Why is there something rather than nothing?" The book offers their answers, along with biographical descriptions.

For Dyson, Holt's book "compels us to ask" these "ugly questions." First, "When and why did philosophy lose its bite?" Philosophers were, once important. In China, Confucius and his followers made a civilization. So too in Greece did Socrates and then the schools of Plato and Aristotle give birth to the western world. In the Christian era Jesus and Paul, then Aquinas and Augustine granted depth to dominant worldviews. Philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, and Leibniz were central figures in the scientific revolution, and philosophical minds like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Arendt (even if one was a philologist and the other two refused the name philosopher) have become central figures in the experience of nihilism. Against these towering figures, the "leading philosophers" in Holt's book cut a paltry figure. Here is Dyson:

Holt's philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant. At some time toward the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers faded from public life. Like the snark in Lewis Carroll's poem, they suddenly and silently vanished. So far as the general public was concerned, philosophers became invisible.

There are many reasons for the death of philosophy, some of which were behind Hannah Arendt's refusal to call herself a philosopher. Philosophy was born, at least in its Platonic variety, from out of the thinker's reaction to the death of Socrates. Confronted with the polis that put the thinker to death, Plato and Aristotle responded by retreating from the world into the world of ideas. Philosophical truth separated itself from worldly truths, and idealism was born. Realism was less a return to the world than a reactive fantasy to idealism. In both, the truths that were sought were otherworldly truths, disconnected to the world.

Christianity furthered the divorce of philosophy from the world by imagining two distinct realms, the higher realm existing beyond the world. Science, too, taught that truth could only be found in a world of abstract reason, divorced from real things. Christianity and science together gave substance to the philosophical rebellion against the world. The result, as Dyson rightly notes, is that philosophy today is as abstract, worldly, and relevant as it is profound.

What Dyson doesn't explore is why philosophers of the past had such importance, even as they also thought about worlds of ideas. The answer cannot be that ideas had more import in the past than now. On the contrary, we live in an age more saturated in ideas than any other. More people today are college educated, literate, and knowledgeable of philosophy than at any period in the history of the world. Books like Holt's are proof positive of the profitable industry of philosophical trinkets. That is the paradox—at a time when philosophy is read by more people than ever, it is less impactful than it ever was.

One explanation for this paradox is nihilism—The devaluing or re-valuing of the highest values. The truth about truth turned out to be neither so simple nor singular as the philosophers had hoped. An attentive inquiry into the true and the good led not to certainty, but to ideology critique. For Nietzsche, truth, like the Christian God, was a human creation, and the first truth of our age is that we recognized it as such. That is the precondition for the death of God and the death of truth. Nihilism has not expunged ideas from our world, but multiplied them. When speaking about the "true" or the "good" or the "just," Christians, Platonists, and moralists no longer have the stage to themselves. They must now shout to be heard amongst the public relations managers, advertisers, immoralists, epicureans, anarchists, and born again Christians.

Dyson ignores this strain of philosophy. He does point out that Nietzsche was the last great philosopher, but then dismisses Heidegger who "lost his credibility in 1933" and even Wittgentstein who would remain silent if a woman attended his lectures until she would leave. And yet it is Heidegger who has given us the great literary masterpieces of the 20th century philosophy.

His work on technology (The Question Concerning Technik) and art (The Origins of the Work of Art) has been widely read in artistic, literary, and lay circles. It is hard to imagine a philosopher more engaged with the science and literature than Heidegger was. He read physics widely and co-taught courses at the house of the Swiss psychiatrist Medard Boss and also taught seminars with the German novelist Ernst Jünger.

It seems worthwhile to end with a poem of Heidegger's from his little book, Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens/From Out of the Experience of Thinking:

Drei Gefahren drohen dem Denken
Die gute und darum heilsame Gefahr ist die Nachbarschaft des singenden Dichters.
Die böse und darum schärfste Gefahr ist das Denken selber. Es muß gegen sich selbst denken, was es nur selten vermag.
Die schlechte und darum wirre Gefahr ist das Philosophieren.

Three dangers threaten thinking.
The good and thus healthy danger is the nearness of singing poetry.
The evil and thus sharpest danger is thinking itself. It must think against itself, something it can do only rarely.
The bad and thus confusing danger is philosophizing.



The Alternative to Forgiveness

"The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, and both have in common that they attempt to put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly. It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable."

- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

George Zimmerman returned to jail last week, two days after his bond was revoked for intentionally deceiving the court about his financial situation. The speed and promptness of this re-incarceration stands in marked contrast to the six weeks that passed between Zimmerman's lethal shooting of  Trayvon Martin, and his arrest and arraignment on charges of second-degree murder.

During these six weeks, it was astonishing to many people that given the Sanford Police department’s astonishing failure to investigate the case properly, and the application of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” defense, Zimmerman was apparently immune to prosecution (even as similar cases produced vastly different outcomes). Troubled by not simply this fact, but also the explicitly and implicitly racialized context of the case, I found myself deeply invested in seeing Zimmerman arrested, tried, and ultimately punished.

And yet at the same time, as a scholar of punishment in the United States, I hold a deep distrust in a broken criminal justice system that has historically been an instrument in the foundation and maintenance of white supremacy as a political system. As put eloquently at the blog, Low End Theory, "[I]n appealing to the power of the police to arrest, and to the power of the courts to sentence Zimmerman, we also make heard a message that we might otherwise hesitate to send: namely, that we believe that these institutions—the police, the courts, the law—are institutions capable of delivering the justice we want."

Even if we assume that these are institutions capable of delivering such justice, they are nevertheless predicated on the idea that justice can be delivered through punishing. If we are to "think what we are doing" in terms of punishment and our desire to achieve justice through it, we might do well to revisit Arendt's account of the relationship between punishment and forgiveness.

In The Human Condition, Arendt positions punishment as an alternative to forgiveness, which in turn is defined as similar to promising and the opposite of vengeance. All actions, Arendt argues, are necessarily unpredictable and irreversible. We cannot know with certainty what will happen as a result of our actions, nor can we undo them. These two uncomfortable facts about action might otherwise paralyze us from doing anything, but thankfully we have the ability to make promises about the uncertain future and to both seek and grant forgiveness, absolving past harms. Were it not for these faculties we would be unable to reconcile our own finite existence with the fundamental plurality of the human condition. Without forgiveness in particular, we would be forever "confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer's apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell" (237). 

Forgiveness can resolve the fact of irreversibility because, Arendt succinctly notes, it is able to put "an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly" (241). This is what distinguishes forgiveness from vengeance. Vengeance is nothing more than the "re-acting against an original trespassing" (240). It is predictable and certain, a “natural” and “automatic reaction.” It cannot be a new action, but only the continuation of the original transgression. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is an action par excellence, done freely rather than necessarily. Forgiveness is unpredictable and uncertain. If forgiveness is forced, it doesn't really count. One can only ask for forgiveness; one can never demand it. As such, forgiveness can allow us to begin anew in the face of a transgression because it is "the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven" (241).

But what does it mean for punishment to be “the alternative” to this? Can punishment possibly do the same transcendent work for us? If we seek justice through punishment, can such punitive justice ever be the grounds for natality and freedom?

While we typically affirm the justness of punishment by its distinction from vengeance, it nevertheless must be intimately tied to the specific transgression if it is to be justified. Just punishments must "fit" the specific transgression and excessive, cruel, or unusual punishments are thought to be transgressions themselves. Unlike forgiveness, just punishment must be predictable and certain, applied automatically and universally if it is to be effective and non-arbitrary.  Moreover, if our desire for punishment itself becomes automatic and mechanical, this too marks punishment as reactive rather than free. When we find ourselves automatically turning to punishment in response to transgressions, we not only signal a belief that some set of punitive institutions can render justice, but we also reveal a desire similar to the desire for vengeance: a continuation of the transgression.

For punishment to do the same work as forgiveness–stepping outside and beyond the logic of the original transgression and starting something new–it would seemingly have to be arbitrary rather than regular, and therefore lose a key part of its character as just punishment. For punishment to be both predictable and also capable of starting something new, it would have to be as difficult to embrace as forgiveness, such that it, like forgiveness, might be able to free both the punished and the punisher from the past transgression.

The heart of the difficulty is that we remain caught between the act and the actor, of the task of responding to the unpredictability and irreversibility of actions, when the subject of either forgiveness or punishment is the actor. In this sense, forgiving and punishing both publicly declare that some particular action belongs to a particular actor. For Arendt, we must remember that there is nothing self-evident or automatic about the authorship of actions. In so far as an action "reveals" an agent, Arendt writes, "this agent is not an author or a producer" in isolation from others (184). Punishing and forgiving do not simply "hold" a person responsible for their actions, but rather, in concert with their actions, they produce them as responsible subjects for those actions. Forgiveness, Arendt insists, is thus "always an eminently personal ... affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it" (241). If forgiveness is able to bring an end to the transgression and free both the forgiver and the forgiven by beginning something new, it is because it establishes a new relationship between those persons.

But forgiveness is only able to "undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing," because of this translation from action to agent. When a specific agent is assigned responsibility (or takes responsibility for an action that has turned out badly), one need not forgive the bad act, but rather the person. Forgiveness produces responsible subjects on both sides of the exchange. But when punishment makes this same translation, as Michel Foucault demonstrates, it has historically done so through producing a kind of criminal subjectivity that on the one hand treats the agent as a free subject (responsible for their bad acts) and on the other hand, as a pathological object (irresponsible and thus in need of incarceration and discipline). The relationship established between persons through punishment is neither symmetrical, novel, nor personal. Instead, it purchases the punisher’s freedom through condemning the other to unfreedom. Where forgiveness is a productive success, punishment is a productive failure.

What Arendt seems to recognize in the paradoxical relationship between punishment and forgiveness is that even if punishment is an "alternative" to forgiveness, it nevertheless cannot be a substitute for it. What does it mean, then, that we find ourselves unable to forgive that which we cannot punish, and that we cannot punish that which is unforgivable? In part, it means that we might require institutions of punishment if we have any hope of being able to choose forgiveness. And our desire for punishment might be, in part, a desire for the possibility of forgiveness. Punishment, even as it might fail to resolve the predicament of action, might be the condition of possibility of that resolution. But to exercise it would be fall into the trap of vengeance and unfreedom.

That George Zimmerman appeared, for six long weeks, to be not simply unpunished but immune from punishment carries the mark of a kind of immunity from responsibility that serves as the "hallmark" of "radical evil" (241). In the face of such immunity for the killing of another human–to find ourselves powerless to act–is to be confronted not simply with a bad action, but with an offense that "transcends the realm of human affairs" (241). As Robert Gooding-Williams notes, the evil of this automatic immunity afforded to Zimmerman is neither accidental or novel in the U.S., but is deeply connected to who Trayvon Martin was: a young black man living in a nation that historically deputized all non-black persons as executors of the federal fugitive slave law. For Zimmerman to be automatically deputized to kill Trayvon Martin–to be unpunishable for Martin’s death–would affirm the persistence of the radical evil of chattel slavery in a new form.

But even if our desire for punishment reflects a desire toward forgiveness, the danger of punishment as vengeance follows as well. The same punitive institutions, in order to be just, push us toward the logic of simple reaction, rather than action, of predictability and necessity, rather than natality and freedom. It is worth noting that there are currently more black men supervised by the criminal justice system than were held in slavery in 1850. Our regular and automated reliance on punishment to do the work of justice might itself be both necessary for justice, and yet also itself a radical evil, masked by the notion that it can do the same work as forgiveness.

-Andrew T. Dilts


Jacques Ranciere and Hannah Arendt on Democratic Politics

Politics today is democratic politics. While history has not ended and democracy is not universal, there is no doubt that the spirit of our age is democratic. From France and the United States in the 18th century, to the European revolutions of 1848, to decolonialization in the 20th century, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011, one cannot mistake the fact: politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.

But what is democracy?  In his essay, "Does Democracy Mean Something?", Jacques Rancière offers one particularly compelling answer, one that is illustrative of the fate of global politics. Democracy, Rancière writes, is most fundamentally a paradoxical politics. On the one hand, democracy names democratic government. It is good government, or a legitimate order, a form of governmental order that is legitimate and just because it is founded upon democratic principles of equality and self-government. On the other hand, democracy means freedom, the rejection of rule by others, and the demand for the rule of the people by the people.

The democratic paradox is that democracy understood as freedom and the rule by people always threatens to destabilize and revolutionize democratic government that offers itself as a legitimate order. And democratic government—if it is to remain a government—requires the reduction of the revolutionary democratic excess of democratic individualism and the demand for popular rule.

We can of course see this paradoxical essence of democracy in the Occupy Wall Street movement. As Mayor Mike Bloomberg repeatedly emphasized, our democratic government allows protest and individual expression and we must permit the voices of those with whom we disagree. At the same time, Bloomberg argued that democratic government sets limits on those dissenting voices, authorizes regulations upon them, and, eventually, requires that they respect the authority and order of the existing democratic establishment. From this governmental perspective, the messy aspects of personal democracy and democratic individualism—the call to mobilize the people to pursue their plural and discordant interests—is a threat to good democratic government.

Democracy, in Rancière's words, is a power that at once legitimates and de-legitimates. Democracy promises the transparency and self-government that is necessary to legitimate government today. And yet it also insists upon unruly individualism and dissent that must be limited and contained in order to ensure a democratic state.

Beyond the democratic paradox, Rancière argues that true democratic politics is on the side of the messy, individualist, and disruptive aspect of democracy. His word for this is "dissensus," and Rancière insists that "democracy implies a practice of dissensus, one that it keeps re-opening and that the practice of ruling relentlessly plugs." Democracy, in other words, is the practice of disrupting all statist orders, even democratic state orders. It is an "anarchic principle" and "insofar as it is anarchic it precludes the self-grounding of politics." Politics, democratic politics, modern politics, is unavoidably open and anarchic.

In his analysis of the paradoxical nature of democracy and the priority of dissensus, Rancière reflects much that is in the work of Hannah Arendt. Both Rancière and Arendt oppose politics to philosophy, since philosophy trades in truths that shut down politics, which is about opinions. Rancière, as does Arendt, defines politics as a form of action—politics is an activity of people, in the plural, and not simply of states. And if Rancière sees political action as manifesting "dissensus," Arendt insists that political action be spontaneous and capable of beginning something new into the world. Which is why Arendt argues that "the modern concept of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known before, is about to unfold" is at the very center of modern democratic politics.

The centrality of revolution to Arendt's thought means that "the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide."  Because politics is by its nature revolutionary action, Arendt refuses to call it democracy, because democracy is—like all "cracy's"—derived from the Greek kratein, expressing rule and order. Democracy, as majority rule, opposes revolutionary action, and is, therefore, "simply another form of rulership."  As does Rancière, Arendt insists that freedom demands that we move beyond democracy as simply a form of government.

Similarities aside, Rancière builds his theory of dissensus in opposition to Hannah Arendt's work. In both "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and "Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?" Rancière explicates his idea of politics as dissensus against Arendt's revolutionary politics.

In "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?", Rancière locates his split with Arendt around her division of the political from the social. In line with many who read Arendt as erecting rigid boundaries between the social, the political and the private, Rancière worries that "Arendt's rigid opposition between the realm of the political and the realm of private life" sets up an exclusive realm from which the people must be kept out.  By excluding the world of private and economic and social concerns from the lofty realm of politics, Arendt, pace Rancière, depoliticizes politics by cleansing it of the people and their voices.

Such readings of Arendt make rigid her rich descriptions of the political, social, and private realms; they offer a pale representation of the fire that burns brightly in Arendt's writing. It is common today to imagine that Arendt makes strict distinctions between political and non-political activities, just as it widespread to think that the divisions between labor, work, and action in The Human Condition are impenetrable. Yes Arendt distinguishes the political from the social. But that does not at all mean that economic and social interests are never political. Of course, as Arendt concedes often, some level of social security is part of the political realm. Her point is simply that such social concerns are at odds with freedom, which is the true aim of political action.

In "Does Democracy Mean Something?", Rancière offers a better and more meaningful distinction between himself and Arendt. Here, he makes clear his view that "democracy cannot consist in a set of institutions."   Institutions, he argues, mean nothing in themselves. "The reason for this is that one and the same constitution and set of laws can be implemented in opposite ways depending on the sense of the 'common' in which they are framed."  Rancière's point is, on one level, obvious. At times, the constitution and the laws are invoked to stifle debate and dissent. At other times they are called upon to enable and further the call for new political institutions. In themselves, the constitution and the laws are not decisive.

But Rancière goes further. Not only are political institutions not decisive in politics, they occupy the field of politics with a claim to legitimacy and thus delimit and shrink "the political stage."  By establishing what is constitutional and legal protest and who can protest and who is even a citizen, the institutions of politics limit politics in "a biased way." They police the boundaries and access to politics "in the name of the purity of the political, the universality of the law or the distinction between political universality and social particularity."

In his suspicion of institutions, Rancière does indeed depart from Arendt in a meaningful way. For Arendt, modern politics, as revolutionary politics, means a free and new founding of freedom. What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. At the core of Arendt's political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that "power and freedom belong together."

The genius of the American Revolution in Arendt's telling is that it found what she calls a new experience of power. This American experience of power "was embodied in all institutions of self-government throughout the country." It goes back to the Mayflower Compact drawn up on the ship and signed by the first settlers upon landing, an act that displays their

obvious confidence that they had in their own power, granted and confirmed by no one and as yet unsupported by any means of violence, to combine themselves together into a 'civil Body Politik' which, held together solely by the strength of mutual promise 'in the Presence of God and one another', supposedly was powerful enough to 'enact, constitute, and frame' all necessary laws and instruments of government.

From out of the basic experience of power through mutual action with others, the American colonists developed their institutions of town halls, constitutional conventions, and local government in townships, counties, and states.  Since written laws cannot control power, but "only power arrests power," freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the "consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same."

Unlike Rancière for whom institutions are biased watchmen patrolling the entry into politics, Arendt sees the institutions of self-government as the common world within which plural citizens congregate, talk, and act. Without such institutions, there would be no public space, no commons, in which politics happens. Politics needs not only revolution and dissensus, but also some prior consensus—an acknowledgement of the facts of the political world we are born into. From there one can, and sometimes must, resist and revolt.

Rancière sees all consensus, all that is common, as exclusionary, violent, and apolitical. But the common world itself is not oppressive and anti-political. It is, what it is, and the first requirement of politics is that one reconciles oneself to the world we share with others. That is not giving in to the system, but is, rather, the very possibility of political and revolutionary action.

Rancière's engagement with Arendt is one of the most important in modern political theory. You can read Jacques Rancière's "Does Democracy Mean Something?" here.

I also encourage you to buy the Dissensus, Rancière's book that includes "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and also "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?". Buy it here.

And as a bonus, if you want a different take on the relationship between Arendt and Rancière, you can read Adam Schapp's essay on the topic here.