** This article was originally published on our blog on Monday, August 13, 2012. **
“Plurality of languages: [...] It is crucial 1. that there are many languages and that they differ not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar, and so in mode of thought and 2. that all languages are learnable.”
-- Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, i.e. Thinking Diary, p. 42f
Hannah Arendt learned English quickly. In the year after her arrival to the USA in 1941, her work was already being printed by American magazines and publishers. In November 1950, as she wrote the above sentences on the “plurality of languages,” she refined her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and readied it for publication. Contemporaneously with the publication of her first book in English and shortly before her “naturalization” as an American citizen, Arendt began her Denktagebuch. The book—a diary of reflections, of sorts—was written in several languages and often, like the entry above, in German.
“The common element connecting art and politics is that they are both phenomena of the public world. What mediates the conflict between the artist and the man of action is the cultura animi, that is, a mind so trained and cultivated that it can be trusted to tend and take care of the world of appearances whose criterion is beauty.”
“The Crisis in Culture,” in Between Past and Future (1993 ) 218-219
The survival of culture is not assured. In her exploration of culture and crisis, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between objects that are produced for use and those that are produced as art in order to endure. Consumptive life is a part of leisure, a “necessity” of life, whereas art, as Arendt often discusses, partakes in the humanistic task of cultivating a world that doesn’t collapse all distinctions – among people, among realms of experiences, among spaces of collective encounter, and among the ways in which we see violence whether in the hands of fellow human beings or state authorities. This note about violence is not a theme in Arendt’s “The Crisis in Culture.” But it very well could be, and as I’ll assert here, it should be. This is part of our “crisis of culture,” after all, a dilemma for which art may offer some chance of cultivating a humanistic sensibility that is much needed in light of persistent violence within liberal democratic republics today.
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)
In a short entry in her Denktagebuch from 1956, Arendt offers a gnomic reflection on Antigone:
Ad Orff, Antigone: Als sei alles darauf angelegt, uns zum Ertönen zu bringen. Wir aber verschliessen uns, verstummen und klagen nicht. Antigone- die klagende, tönende menschliche Stimme, in der alles offenbar wird.
Ad Orff, Antigone: As if all was set out to bring us to sound. But we lock up, fall silent, and do not lament. Antigone – the lamenting, sounding human voice, in which all becomes revealed. (Notebook XXII, February 1956, Denktagebuch)
The entry first caught my attention because while Arendt often refers to literature (favorite authors include Kafka and Rilke), she rarely refers to specific musical pieces in her published work. Here she reacts to the opera Antigonae by Carl Orff.
Orff had composed for the Nazis, who received his Carmina Burana with incredible adulation, and underwent denazification after the war. Antigonae of 1949 is a minimalist work, first in the everyday sense that it sets Hölderlin's translation of the drama to song with little instrumental accompaniment. In this regard it highlights the translation's inherent musicality on the level of form (rhythms and rhymes in the text) and content (we see how at a number of moments the drama turns on references to singing, crying, tone, and lament). Orff's opera can also be described as minimalist in the more precise sense that when the orchestra does emerge, it often plays looping interludes that remind one of the repetitive avant-garde phrasings that Steve Reich would popularize in the 1960s.
Arendt often turns to art as a free space in which to voice philosophical and political questions in the modern age. Readers compelled by her approach might be inspired by the entry on Orff to look for other passages addressing music that would compliment her better known aesthetic analyses.
At a local level, the entry also raises a question: how would Arendt read Sophocles's Antigone? Patchen Markell offers one suggestion when he links Sophocles and Arendt in a “countertradition of thought about recognition” in his book Bound by Recognition. Markell casts a skeptical eye on the equation of identity and justice and offers an alternative mapping which is open to asymmetry and values finitude. In doing so he suggests a possible approach to this entry that notices the uncanny relation of the “we” and Antigone through the instrument of the voice.
The first line of the entry starts with the “we”– presumably the spectators of the opera and perhaps humanity more broadly – and centers on the German term “Ertönen,” which could be translated as “to ring out,” “to sound,” “resound,” or “chime.” It indicates expression, and even a move to freedom. In the next sentence though, this potential for liberation evaporates and “we” fall silent. It ultimately fails at the possibility, even apparent necessity of “klagen,” a term which contains the powerful double meaning of 1) “moan,” “lament,” “wail,” and 2) “litigate,” “file a suit,” “go to law.” Unlike us, Antigone's voice does ring out, she does lament, and in her lament she takes on the law.
Arendt describes Antigone's voice as the “human voice,” but her description leads us to think in the direction of the questioning of the essence of the human in first stasimon (often referred to as the “ode to man”). Roger Berkowitz connects the deinon (wondrous / terrible) in this ode to Arendt's concern over the “danger that we might so fully create and make our artificial world that we endanger that quality of human life which is subject to fate, nature, and chance” in his article in The Fortnightly Review.
In terms of the question of recognition, Arendt's note on Orff draws our attention to those sections of the drama where Antigone pushes against the inhuman, such as when the guard describes her shriek at the sight of her brother's unburried body as “a distressing painful cry, just like a bird/ who’s seen an empty nest, its fledglings gone.” Later, she sings a long lament to her tomb and dead family, as if those who remain alive are nothing to her. The minimalist loops of Orff's music might indicate something of the energy that insists on living when one has nothing to live for or is even condemned to death. These sections are strikingly different from the over-the-top triumphalism of Carmina Burana, which hounds popular culture in movies and commercials to this day. They suggest persistence rather than victory, or perhaps even a paradoxical continuation in an explicit condition of defeat.
Antigone is the voice, Arendt tells us. We seem to recognize it as our own, even if the total meaning of the “all” that would be the content of our realization remains out of reach.
“Plurality of languages: [...] It is crucial 1. that there are many languages and that they differ not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar, and so in mode of thought and 2. that all languages are learnable.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, i.e. Thinking Diary, p. 42f
Hannah Arendt learned English quickly. In the year after her arrival to the USA in 1941, her work was already being printed by American magazines and publishers. In November 1950, as she wrote the above sentences on the “plurality of languages,” her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) was ready for publication. Contemporaneously with the publication of her first book in English, and shortly before her “naturalization” as an American citizen, Arendt began her Denktagebuch; it was written in several languages—often, like the entry above, in German.
According to Arendt, the fact that an entity designed to bear and present things can be called both “table” and “Tisch” suggests that something of the “true essence” escapes from that which we produce and name ourselves. The belief that we can positively comprehend the essence of a table with the word “table” would only function under the assumption of a “homogenous human collective.” This hypothesis is in Arendt’s eyes just as “absurd” as the idea of a universal “world language” or one “human condition.” Such conceptions imply the danger of an “artificial forcible disambiguation of the ambiguous,” the entry in the Denktagebuch continues. In political terms this would mean: the abolition of plurality.
Plurality is a fundamental concept in Arendt’s writing. The many and the various are for Arendt the starting point from which to think in new ways about the political, whose meaning is freedom, in the age of totalitarianism. Arendt’s theoretical project responds to the political circumstances of the time: in more than one language. This passage written in German in the Denktagebuch on the “plurality of languages,” for example, is framed by a note in French and one in English—the languages of Arendt’s exile (she left Berlin in 1933 in flight from the Nazis, spent the next eight years in Paris and fled further to New York when Hitler invaded France.).
Interestingly, one German word of the quoted entry is put in quotation marks and thereby emphasized: “Entsprechungen” (“counterparts”). Arendt draws a correspondence between the experience of the “wavering ambiguity of the world and the uncertainty of people within it” and the experience that (mediated by the learnability of other languages) there are “yet other ‘counterparts‘ for our mutual-identical world.” In the echo chamber of the bordering entries in French and English, what would be the counterpart of the German “Entsprechungen”? Pendants, adéquations, équivalents – equivalences, analogies, counterparts? Or perhaps correspondences – correspondences?
Arendt came to speak again of “correspondences” almost twenty years later in her essay on Walter Benjamin. “What fascinated him,” she wrote of Benjamin, “was that the spirit and its material manifestation were so intimately connected that it seemed permissible to discover everywhere Baudelaire’s correspondences, which clarified and illuminated one another if they were properly correlated, so that finally they would no longer require any interpretative or explanatory commentary.”
In the same context, Arendt characterizes Benjamin’s special mode of thinking as “poetic thinking.” Is this to be read also as a response to her fundamental question, noted in her Denktagebuch in December 1950, in close proximity to her entry on the plurality of languages: “Is there a mode of thinking that is not tyrannical?”
A considerable portion of Arendt’s books and essays is written not in one, but in two languages. Depending on the situation, for example, first in English and then later in German, when the same text was published on the other side of Atlantic. Particularly fascinating in this respect is a comparative reading of Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) and the German version Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben (1960). Literally every page, every paragraph, and every sentence of both books shows how Arendt thinks and writes in two languages, “not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar.”
Take for example the presumably well-known division of human activity that Arendt deals with in The Human Condition: labor, work, action. As Patchen Markell has presented in his essay “On the Architecture of The Human Condition,” this conceptual triad is best understood “not as a single, functionally continuous three-part distinction,” but rather as “the fraught conjunction of two different pairs of concepts— labor and work, and work and action.” In a dense passage of §12 of The Human Condition, Arendt puts these distinctions into words in the following way:
Needed by our bodies and produced by its laboring, but without stability of their own, these things [consumer goods] for incessant consumption appear and disappear in an environment of things that are not consumed but used, and to which, as we use them, we become used and accustomed. As such, they give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things [labor, work] as well as between men and men [action]. (p. 94)
In the placing together of “to use” and “to get used to,” Arendt’s systematic reflections on labor, work, and action as distinct and connected concepts verbally echo her thought. In the German version of the same passage in Vita Activa the scope and radicality of this thought is made clear in another way. Here Arendt works with the words “verbrauchen” (to consume) and “gebrauchen” (to use). While the first one refers to labor and the second to work, their conceptual proximity becomes visible in the shared stem: “brauchen.” In the same passage of Vita Activa, Arendt transforms the work-related activity into a noun, “Gebrauch” (use), which is a collective singular, while the plural form is “Gebräuche,” i.e. when the word enters the realm of plurality it opens up what the English version calls “customs and habits,” including manners and morals, i.e. phenomena belonging to the world of (political) practice and leaning towards action. All the terms in Arendt’s constellation of distinct yet related concepts share the word “brauchen.” Ironically or aptly, this German word means not only “to use” but also “to need” and in its reflexive form “to need each other.”
We need to read Hannah Arendt in the plurality of her languages, so that their differences can illuminate each other, if we want to grasp the political and poetic, poetic and political spectrum, legacy, and provocation of her thinking. Well, I might rather say: we need to begin.
-Thomas Wild, with Anne Posten
“The accusative of violence, like that of love, destroys the in-between, crushes or burns it, renders the other defenseless, strips itself of protection. In contrast to this stands the dative of saying and speaking, which confirms the in-between, moves within it. Then again there is the accusative of the singing poem, which removes and releases what it sings from the in-between and its relations, without confirming anything. When poetry and not philosophy absolutizes, there’s rescue.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, p. 428 [August 1953], (my translation.)
When I was in college, puzzling over Arendt’s work for the first time, I read Hanna Pitkin’s famous essay “Justice: On Relating Private and Public,” which contains some of the most-quoted words ever written about The Human Condition: “What is it that they talk about together, in that endless palaver in the agora?” This question grew in part out of Arendt’s love of the troublesome phrase “for its own sake,” which, when used to characterize political action, seemed to imply that genuine action had to be about nothing but itself, gloriously pointless: praxis as peacock-feather. Yet at other times Arendt took the edge off of this austerity: “Most words and deeds,” she says, almost offhandedly, “are about some worldly objective reality in addition to being a disclosure of the acting and speaking agent.” They talked about a thousand mundane things.
This week’s passage, drawn from Hannah Arendt’s notebooks from 1953, elegantly uses a grammatical idea to hold these two thoughts together. As readers of German will know, the “accusative” and the “dative” are two of German’s four grammatical cases, in which pronouns and nouns are changed, or given specific endings, to signal their relationship to another part of a sentence. The accusative case is used, roughly, when something is the direct object of a verb—when we are in the register of cause and effect, you might say, in which one thing “accuses” another through the linguistic mark it bears of an action that was taken upon it. The dative case, by contrast, is used for indirect objects, and originally with objects to which or to whom something is given. (And that means, incidentally, that acknowledging givenness isn’t a matter of submitting to the brute, determining force of things as they are: to be given something is not to be struck with it, no matter how unalterable it may be.)
These are very different kinds of relationship, as Arendt emphasizes by tying this grammatical distinction to her oft-repeated contrast between violence and speech; but they are also relationships that can exist, side by side or even hand in hand, in a single course of action. It happens all the time in language: we give something (accusative) to someone (dative); or, as Arendt says elsewhere in her notebooks, we speak about something (über, accusative) with others (mit, dative). She also suggests that speech that isn’t about anything—speech that has lost its “Über”—isn’t an admirable exemplar of human freedom, but merely the “last residuum” of speech; bare, formal logic; on its way to silence.
And, although Arendt herself doesn’t make this point explicitly, we might also notice that the phrase “for the sake of” (um...willen in German) indicates yet another kind of relationship, for it takes the genitive case, the case of possession (for God’s sake). The “sake” in “for the sake of” is also a cause, but not in the sense of efficient causality, nor even in the sense of an ultimate purpose, if that is understood as the final term in a linked chain of means and ends. It is more like a “cause” in the sense of a legal issue, a dispute that bears on or is relevant to certain parties—both their cause and their case. To say that action is for its own sake, from this grammatical perspective, is not incompatible with action being about some particular object, nor with action establishing indirect relations between people that are mediated by that object. It means only that nothing outside the field of action itself determines the range or sustains the intensity of its relevance.
The other striking part of this passage, of course, is its suggestion that, at least sometimes, human activity can stand between, or straddle, the accusative of violence and love and the dative of speaking and saying. Arendt’s example is “the accusative of the singing poem,” which has a direct object, but acts upon it in a distinctive way: not violently or absorptively, but by “releasing” it, she says, from the in-between and its relations. Arendt presents this release as a kind of “absolutization,” but not the kind performed by philosophy—or at least some kinds of philosophy—where, as she had put it in her notebooks a few months earlier, an object is abstracted or isolated from all worldly relations in order to be measured according to a standard that comes “from outside,” that is, which is itself also grasped in isolation.
What happens in the “singing poem,” then, is not absolutization as universalization, as a stripping-away of muddying particularities, but absolutization as the creation of something particular that can subsist, for a while, as its own world, that can be encountered as an appearance and not, or not yet, as a means to an end. This is what Arendt, in one of her essays on Bertolt Brecht, called the “precise generality of the literary art.” The poem places a dark, silent margin around its object, a horizon that turns us back to the specificity of its words—of its own words, for its own sake. Yet its removal of itself and its object from the in-between is only provisional, for what it releases from the world it then releases into the world, transfigured in what—in a few years—Arendt will call “a veritable metamorphosis in which it is as though the course of nature which wills that all fire burn to ashes is reverted and even dust can burn into flames.”
These flames do not destroy the world, but braze together its cases.
 Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, “Justice: On Relating Private and Public,” Political Theory 9, no. 3 (August 1981): 336.
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958),
 Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, 214; 345.
 Ibid., 339.
 Hannah Arendt, “The Poet Bertolt Brecht,” in Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Peter Demetz (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 45.
 Arendt, The Human Condition, 168.
This is an exciting week at the Hannah Arendt Center. We are in the middle of the first annual Arendt Center Working Group Conference. The gathering was conceived to bring together humanities scholars from around the world to read, discuss, and think about one particular book in detail. This year's volume is the recently published Denktagebuch (or "book of thoughts") by Hannah Arendt.
Our illustrious participants for this conference are:
Ursula Ludz - Ludz is one of the editors of Denktagebuch as well as the sole editor of Letters: 1925-1975 by Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. She also compiled the penetrating paperback Ich Will Verstehen (I will Understand), which contains a collection of autobiographical statements by Hannah Arendt and a complete bibliography of her works. Additionally, she is a member of the editorial staff of the internet journal Hannaharendt.net.
Roger Berkowitz - Berkowitz is the Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center and an Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College. He is the author of The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, and the editor and a contributor of Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics.
Jeffrey Champlin - Champlin was a 2011-2012 fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center with a Ph.D. in German from NYU. He taught at Bard this past year and will be teaching in Palestine in the fall as part of the Bard/ Al Quds Partnership.
Thomas Wild - Wild, a pre-eminant Hannah Arendt scholar from Germany will be joining the Bard faculty teaching German this fall. He will also be a Research Associate at the Hannah Arendt Center. He has published several books on Arendt including an "intellectual biography" of Hannah Arendt, and a monograph on Hannah Arendt's relationships with key postwar German writers.
Tracy Strong - Strong is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UC San Diego with a Ph.D from Harvard University.He is the author of numerous books including Politics Without Vision: thinking without a Banister in the Twentieth Century, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Politics of the Ordinary.
Anne O'Byrne - O'Byrne is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Stony Brook University. Her field of research is 20th century and contemporary European philosophy. In her articles she investigates the political and ontological questions that arise around embodiment, labor, gender, and pedagogy using the work of authors such as Heidegger, Arendt, Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean Baudrillard and Julia Kristeva.
Wout Cornelissen - Cornelissen is an Assistant Professor of Political Philosophy at VU University Amsterdam. His Dissertation project is ‘Conceptions of the Political in the Work of Karl Popper, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt.’
Patchen Markell - Markell is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and writes and teaches about Hannah Arendt as well as on figures such as Hegel, Marx, and Aristotle. His first book, Bound by Recognition was published in 2003. He is currently at work on a book-length study of Arendt's The Human Condition.
Christina Tarnopolsky - Tarnopolsky is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at McGill University in Quebec. Her research interests include Classical Political Philosophy; Contemporary Social Theory; Emotions and Politics; Aesthetics and Politics. Her book, Prudes, Perverts and Tyrants: Plato’s Gorgias and the Politics of Shame was published in 2010.
Ian Storey - Storey will be a Junior Teaching Fellow at the Arendt Center for 2012-2013. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago where he has been teaching since 2009. His article, "Kant’s Dilemma and the Double Life of Citizenship” will be published shortly.
We held a welcome dinner in the attendees honor at an Suminski Innski on the Hudson River in Tivoli.
“While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (200).
To read this line from The Human Condition in the wake of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, or in the midst of the Occupations that have radiated from Zuccotti Park across the United States and beyond, might be invigorating: aren’t both of these events expressions of power in Arendt’s sense, instances of the unpredictable human capacity to break out of the daily mire of authoritarianism or of capitalism and, acting in concert, to begin something new?
It might also be depressing, since Arendt seems to remind us of the fleetingness of this kind of power, which flashes up in a moment of action but then vanishes, leaving old forces of more familiar kinds—army officers, professional politicians hungry for Wall Street money—to reassert themselves.
But wait. Let’s allow ourselves to be a little more puzzled by what Arendt says here about power and action: “Power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.” On the one hand, it’s clear enough why Arendt would say this: she wants to underscore the distance between her use of the word “power” and some other, much more familiar ones. She doesn’t mean, as Weberian social scientists might, the capacity to control or influence others by virtue of the possession of some durable resource like money or guns. Perhaps she doesn’t even mean a “capacity” at all, in the sense of a state of unactualized readiness that precedes and enables an action: after all, action is supposed to be miraculous, so to think of it in Aristotelian terms simply as the actualization of a pre-existing potentiality might be, as she says much later, in The Life of the Mind, to “deny the future as an authentic tense.” She marks her distance from both of these uses of “power” by making power and action coeval. But, on the other hand, if power springs up between people when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse—if, as she says, seemingly echoing the Megarians whom Aristotle criticizes in the Metaphysics, power “exists only in its actualization”—then what is power but a synonym for action itself? Why has Arendt bothered to retain the term at all?
Notice, however, that Arendt does not quite say that power vanishes as soon as the action stops. Instead, she says that it vanishes the moment people disperse;
and this fact is apparently meant to distinguish power from the “space of appearance,” which, it seems, does disappear as soon as the action stops. On the preceding page of The Human Condition, Arendt had written that that “the space of appearance comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action,” and added: “its peculiarity is that, unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, it does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men...but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves.” So the arrest of an activity is not yet the dispersal of persons. And that means that power is not quite redundantly congruent with action after all. If we look for a little bit of Arendtian power to exist in the split-second before an action starts, we won’t find it, because power in her sense does not precede and explain the moment of action’s initiation. It does, however, survive or outlast it. Power is, as she says, what “keeps people together after the fleeting moment of action has passed.” It is what gives action duration, what draws a spontaneous flash of novelty on the part of a single agent (archein) out into a course of action in which others—some of the lingering, undispersed witnesses to the initial event—join, and which they extend and continue (prattein).
If we really wanted to look at events like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square or the Occupy movement through an Arendtian lens, then, our first step should be to stop talking about them as though they were simply moments, and as though the challenge were to find a way of prolonging or institutionalizing them without sacrificing their radical, disruptive force. Such representations falsely collapse the duration of these events into an instant, and they falsely suppose that their power lay in their momentariness.
Quite the contrary: one of the most striking things about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, after all, was simply that they continued, even when many observers thought, whether with hope or with fear, that they were sure to dissipate in the face of violence, or the threat of violence, or simple exhaustion (indeed, they lasted long enough that the demonstrators had to improvise ways of organizing the performance of the rhythmic tasks associated with the maintenance of the human body—feeding, disposing of waste—that some austere versions of Arendtianism would exclude from politics). Likewise, the Occupation in lower Manhattan is now approaching two months old; it has an infrastructure and an organization, even if it is not organization on the military model of a chain of command; and it evidently has power in Arendt’s sense: the power to sustain itself over time, to attract new participants and observers, to refuse dispersal, to resist arrest. Its power lies, in part, in the way it orients its participants and observers toward the curiously hybrid status of its little bit of territory: a privately owned but publicly accessible park, not just a symbol but an instance of the intersection of corporate and state power, put on display and put under pressure by the ongoing presence of the Occupiers, which tests the limits of that promise of publicity. By organizing the attention of its participants and observers in this way, the Occupation has already, in its very existence and duration, transformed our sense of the shape of the world to which we belong, and of what is imaginable in it. That is hardly everything; but it is not nothing. The snow is coming: will they disperse? —will we?
Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago