“What is Politics?” is the question taken up by a conference co-sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center and the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles earlier this month. Hannah Arendt dedicated her work to the reinvention of the public realm and to freedom in political action. Today, as in the 1960s, her ideas inspire theoretical debates as well as civil political initiatives.
The conference, with lectures by experts on Hannah Arendt’s work, focused on the influence of her European-American experience and the particular importance of transcultural exchange in Arendt’s theory of political action. Speakers included Marie Luise Knott, Anson Rabinbach; Princeton University, Peg Birmingham; DePaul University, Robert Harrison; Stanford University, Martín Plot; California Institute of the Arts, Wolfgang Heuer; Freie Universität Berlin, and Roger Berkowitz; Bard College. Most of the talks were videotaped and are now online. They are your weekend read. Happy Thanksgiving.
“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.
Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints….This process of representation does not blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere else, and hence look upon the world from a different perspective; this is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.
-Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics” in Between Past and Future, p. 241
In response to the shootings in Aurora, Colorado in July, President Obama had this to say:
While we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living. The people we lost in Aurora loved and they were loved….They had hopes for the future and they had dreams that were not yet fulfilled. And if there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile…What matters at the end of the day is not the small things; it’s not the trivial things…Ultimately it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.
This speech was disturbing for a number of reasons. Yes, it was full of clichés and tired appeals to the hopes and futures of people who are nothing but a vague idea to Obama’s audience. But most disturbing of all was the fact that it revealed the response of the country’s highest public official to a breakdown of public safety was essentially a complete abdication of responsibility for the public.
In this speech, Obama refuses to articulate what Arendt calls political thought, instead luxuriating in the experience of empathy and asking the audience to the do same. The problem with speaking and thinking of politics as a sphere in which individuals must try “to be or to feel like somebody else,” as Arendt saw it, is that feeling with another does nothing to acknowledge and maintain the plurality that is so necessary to politics. In empathy, one remains isolated and alone as an individual, albeit an individual with a different set of emotional experiences than what one had before. In this instance, Obama puts himself into the shoes of those individuals who lost family and friends in the shooting and asks his Florida audience to do the same. In so doing, he transforms the event from one that confronts the American polity with questions about our shared public space—about national gun control laws and issues connected to the lack of appropriate physical and mental health care—into a question of the appropriate personal response to loss. Seen in this light, it is not at all surprising that the President would conclude his speech by telling the audience that he and his wife will hug their daughters a bit more tightly that night.
Characterizing what is surely a public problem into an issue of bedtime rituals among family members reveals not only the extent to which politics has given way to personal concerns, but also the unhappy possibility that not even our political leaders are able to move beyond personal concerns to take responsibility for the public as a whole.
It is tempting to interpret Arendt’s quote as an admonition to individuals to reveal themselves in political action. This understanding of Arendtian politics and action is the most familiar one and Arendt’s language of “being and thinking in my own identity” certainly evokes the language of personal courage she uses to describe the political actor in The Human Condition. There she ascribes to the decision to enter politics a courage that is necessary to bring to the public light one’s thoughts and deeds as undeniably one’s own and to “ris[e] into sight from some darker ground” (The Human Condition, 71).
But these lines of “Truth and Politics” strongly suggest that the public appearance one makes as an individual must somehow be tied intimately to other people. What one reveals, in other words, is not oneself in one’s personal sentiments, but rather one’s opinion, which necessarily takes into account the viewpoints of other people. The rising from a dark ground into the light of the public is less about revealing oneself in all one’s uniqueness and more about situating or orienting oneself within a realm of others from whom one may or may not differ. It is for this reason, I think, that Arendt considers empathy to be destructive of politics. In empathy, we appropriate the other to collapse the distance between us that would make possible our orientation in the world. One cannot be “oriented” in the absence of external markers against which one can orient oneself.
The consequences of reading politics as a world of empathetic individuals are dire. Empathy makes it easy to justify the appropriation of others’ lives and perspectives as one’s own. In the name of feeling with the victim, we can often leave the victim even more impoverished than he was before the outpouring of empathy. The loss suffered by those in Aurora has become the sadness and pain of those for whom the victims of the shooting, both living and dead, were really nothing but examples of our country’s political failure. On top of what these victims had already lost, it is possible that they might also lose ownership of the event. Such an appropriation has implications beyond the aesthetic or moral. The political problem with Obama’s speech is not simply that he did not reveal himself or that he appropriated the suffering of the Colorado victims. It is that his empathy allowed him to refuse to take responsibility for the community as a whole and it made it easy for the rest of us to do the same and to do so with a clear conscience. Taking care of one’s community and one’s neighbors is measured by the degree to which one can take care of the imagined personal pains of others, not one’s response to the institutional and other structural conditions that have made such events so commonplace in this country.
Arendt’s distinction between engaging with the viewpoints of others and feeling with another is ultimately a foundation for political responsibility, not just courageous action understood independently of one’s responsibility to the public world. To the extent that politics requires courage, it requires courage not simply to reveal oneself in a crude individualism, but to take responsibility for the big questions of our community. There is of course nothing wrong with hugging one’s children at night. But to define one’s political self in this act and to ask others do so as well is to shirk one’s responsibility for the community and to tell us that such an abdication of responsibility is not only acceptable, but also laudable because it is “human” and feeling. This might not be a necessary consequence of empathy, but, as Arendt tells us, it is an inherent possibility and a threat.
“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.
“Factual truth is always related to other people [...]. It is political by nature.”
-Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics
“Our inheritance was left to us by no testament”
-Hannah Arendt, quoting René Char, Between Past and Future
In his acceptance speech, the recipient of the 1997 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought wondered why he of all people had been chosen for it. He was, he said, a pragmatist, a practitioner of politics, not a political thinker. At the time he was already a prominent figure in contemporary politics: as a courageous pastor in the GDR who did not shy away from conflict with the regime, as a participant in the freedom movement of 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, since 1990, as the Federal Commissioner for the newly created Stasi Archives, which was tasked with processing the history and crimes of the socialist dictatorship. This man, the winner of the 1997 Arendt prize, is the recently elected German Bundespräsident, Joachim Gauck . [Under the German constitution, the President is the country’s highest representative, while the Chancellor is the head of government and most influential political figure in the German parliamentary democracy (Angela Merkel currently holds the latter position).]
The connection between Arendt and the highest office of the German government makes sense only in light of its oddity and of the unorthodox character of Joachim Gauck. His comment in the acceptance speech that he is a political practitioner rather than a political thinker marks a striking difference between himself and Arendt. One could say, however, that Gauck’s political actions largely constitute the realization of a political understanding that Arendt herself theoretically and conceptually developed. Their shared center of gravity can be formulated in a sentence from Arendt’s “Introduction into Politics”: “The meaning of politics is freedom.”
It is fitting, in a certain way, that the intellectual correspondence between Arendt and Gauck is least to be found in his text Plea for Freedom. This small book, published shortly before his election, can be read as the manifesto of his presidency. The book, divided into the three chapters “Freedom,” “Responsibility,” and “Tolerance” preaches more than it reflects. Generalized talk of “the soul,” and of supposed anthropological constants such as “the human psyche,” or the universal desire for happiness and healing overshadows the knowledge upon which the book is based: that politics comes out of plurality and exists in the living modes of “relatedness.”
When writing serves to express a political program, it becomes a part of the process of political action. Action and thought cannot occur simultaneously, Arendt notes. Thought and consideration become possible only when action has become history-- that is, when it has been completed and can be retold as a story and reflected upon.
Joachim Gauck’s best texts are distinguished by the fact that they are written out of personal experience. They speak from the perspective of an “I” that knows that political speech must be concrete and therefore limited. The more I generalize, the farther I distance myself from the solid ground of the facts. For a theologian, this may not be self-evident. In his acceptance speech for the Arendt prize, Gauck does not pay lip service to the prize’s eponym-- as did so many of those to whom Arendt became “hip” after 1989-- by claiming her as the inspiration for his political actions during the dictatorship. Rather, he recognizes his own lapse in not studying Arendt’s texts at the right time. He sees it as a failure to confront the intuitive striving and fighting for freedom with “conceptual clarity and precision,” quoting Arendt’s On Revolution.
Does this lack of conceptual clarity point to a romanticization which placed (the self-perceptions of) personal actions in the world of wishful thinking instead of in the world of facts, Gauck asked? The question is directed at himself and his contemporaries. “Did it suffice to have an opinion about reality, whose facts I hadn’t thoroughly developed?” he reflects with reference to Arendt in his afterword to the Blackbook of Communism (1998). I individually can hold an opinion, almost like philosophically wise thoughts or words; facts, on the other hand, are political, since I always share them with others. Arendt formulated it thus in Truth and Politics: “Factual truth is always related to other people [...]. It is political by nature.”
This understanding of the eminently political quality of facts shaped Joachim Gauck’s work as the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi-Archives. Perhaps this constitutes the greatest accomplishment of his life: Gauck’s work secured the documents and archived materials without which the history of the SED-dictatorship and its repressive apparatuses could not have been written.
In the months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of citizens and members of opposition groups occupied the headquarters of the state secret police in East Berlin and other cities of the GDR. The Stasi had already begun to destroy documents on a large scale. Approximately 130 miles of files were saved, where 3 feet of files could contain up to 10,000 pages. The Stasi had collected approximately 6 million personal files-- 4 million on citizens of the GDR, 2 million on citizens of the old Bundesrepublik. What was to be done with such a legacy?
Many demanded that the files be closed or even destroyed in the interest of “national peace.” One could expect such a vote from former GDR elites, who could be prosecuted or face moral discredit if the files were made public. But even reputable social-democratic politicians like Egon Bahr and, out of quite different motives, the West German secret service, wanted to prevent the Stasi files from becoming publicly accessible.
The “inherited burden of dictatorship,” Gauck called this legacy in his Memoirs (2009). It is an inheritance left with no testament, one could say with Arendt and René Char. It is an inheritance without precedent, for which a legal, political, moral, and historiographic procedure had to be found before any work could begin. Joachim Gauck, along with more than 3000 staff members, created the blueprints for dealing with the material. Since 1990, victims of Stasi persecution, as well as the media and researchers, are able to read and study the files of the state surveillance apparatus.
The fact that this is now possible cannot be taken for granted. Since the transition to democracy, other countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania have decided against opening their archives. In Germany, it’s one of Gauck’s major accomplishments to have successfully carried out the demand of the East Germany democracy movement to make the Stasi files publicly accessible.
The Federal Commission for the Stasi-Archives is now a permanent institution in Germany. The commission is internationally respected, and stands as a symbol for Germany’s way of dealing and coming to terms with dictatorship after 1989. The legal and administrative character of the commission, and the basis of its success, is largely thanks to Joachim Gauck’s capacity for political judgment, as he was the first director of the Commission from 1990 to 2000. Gauck, the unconventional political activist from the Baltic, recruited a legal and data protection expert from Bavaria as an administrator, to help carry out the revolutionary civil movement’s lofty goal of universal access to the records. The two persistently maintained this political demand in the face of the reservations and greediness of West German administration and political parties. Gauck recognized that the new Commission for the Stasi Archives would have to fit into the institutional structure of West Germany, and that this framework had to be confronted without naivete or arrogance.
During and since the first national elections in unified Germany in 1990, naivete and arrogance towards the power of established parties and institutions relegated almost all of the East German opposition groups to political meaninglessness. The widespread feeling that the momentum of political freedom was too quickly muted by, and swallowed up into the institutional structure of West Germany burdens the unification process to this day. The Federal Commission for the Stasi Archives is one of the few achievements in which something truly politically new came out of the momentum of freedom in 1989.
The election of Joachim Gauck connects the memory of this founding moment of political freedom with the highest office in Germany—which is delightful, but also feels incongruous. It may also appear incongruous to many that Gauck is the first nominee in Germany’s post-war history who was not elected President directly from another high political office. Since 2000, Gauck has worked for foundations, and as a free-lance writer and lecturer. He is less a man of the political class than a political man. This symbolic fact is one that might have interested Hannah Arendt.
with Anne Posten
Thomas Wild will begin teaching at Bard in the fall and will join the Hannah Arendt Center as a Research Associate.