Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Violence, Art, and Our Crisis in Culture

eric garner protests

“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 [1961]) 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.

Laurie Naranch
Laurie Naranch is Associate Professor of Political Science and director of the Women’s Studies Minor at Siena College, NY. She has published in the areas of democratic theory, gender theory, and popular culture. Her current research is on debt and citizenship along with the work of the Greek-French thinker Cornelius Castoriadis and democracy.

Irony as an Antidote to Thoughtlessness


People blame [übel nehmen] me for one thing—and I can understand that to some extent, outwardly—namely that I can still laugh [about it], right? And I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a clown [ein Hanswurst], and I tell you, I read this police interrogation, 3600 pages, very carefully, and I don’t know how often I laughed, but loudly. Now, this reaction is what people blame me for. I can’t do anything against that. But I know one thing. I would probably still laugh three minutes before [certain death]. And that, you say, is the tone. The tone is widely ironic, of course. That is completely true. That is exactly, the tone is in this case really the human being. When people [reproach] me, then, in this story that I supposedly accused the Jewish people, that is a malicious propaganda lie, and nothing more. The tone, however, is an objection against me as a person; I can’t do anything against that.

Interview with Günter Gaus, October 28, 1964, trans. mine.

The reproach addressed by Arendt in this quote had been expressed, most importantly, by Gershom Scholem in an open letter to Arendt a year earlier, in which he wrote:

So why does your book then leave behind such a feeling of bitterness and shame, and not with respect to that which is reported, but with respect to the reporter? Why does your report cover over to such a large extent that which is brought forward in that book, which you rightly wanted to recommend for reflection? The answer, insofar as I have one, and which I cannot suppress, precisely because I esteem you so highly, (…) [is] what stands between us in this matter [Sache]. It is the heartless, often even derisive [hämische] tone in which this matter that concerns us in the real center of our life is dealt with by you. There is in the Jewish language something that can in no way be defined and is entirely concrete, which the Jews call Ahabath Israel, love for the Jews. Of that, dear Hannah, nothing is noticeable, like with so many intellectuals who have emerged from the German left. (…) I don’t have sympathy for the style of lightheartedness, I mean the English “flippancy,” which you muster all too often (…) in your book. It is unimaginably unbefitting for the matter of which you speak. [Es ist auf unvorstellbare Weise der Sache, über die Sie sprechen, unangemessen]. Was there really no place, at such an occasion, for what one might name with the modest German word Herzenstakt? [“tact of heart”] (June 23, 1963)

Arendt had responded to Scholem’s letter in a letter of her own, dated July 24, 1963. In this letter, Arendt suggests that Scholem failed to get the irony in her writing: “I never made Eichmann out to be a ‘Zionist.’ If you missed the irony of the sentence—which was plainly in oratio obliqua, reporting Eichmann’s own words—I really can’t help it.” But if Scholem may have missed the irony in this particular instance, Scholem’s objection, as Arendt implicitly recognizes in her interview with Günther Gaus one year later, is that it is precisely her ironic tone that is “unimaginably unbefitting.” The interpretation that I want to explore briefly in this blog post is that Arendt’s irony might be precisely the most “befitting” response to the Sache or subject matter, which Arendt analyzes as Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness.”

A free translation of what Arendt lacks, according to Scholem, Herzenstakt, could be “thoughtfulness.” Arendt’s choice of the word “thoughtlessness” was already contested by Mary McCarthy, because Arendt clearly does not mean that Eichmann was not thoughtful (McCarthy’s alternative suggestion, “inability to think,” is not quite right either, because Arendt does not argue that Eichmann could not think but that he did not think). What is at stake for Arendt is thinking.

Amos Elon suggests in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem that Arendt’s sarcasm was “often self-defeating.” According to Elon, “Arendt’s biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has wisely written that Arendt posed the true moral issue but obscured it with needless irony. With chutzpah too, perhaps.” The question, however, is whether Arendt’s posing of the “true moral issue” can be separated from her irony, that is, whether the irony merely adds (possibly counterproductive) flourish to her “posing” of an “issue.” Is her rhetoric nothing but an ornament that obscures the “content,” or a vehicle that fails to deliver the “message”?

(It should be noted that towards the beginning of her discussion of the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem, Young-Bruehl mentions a citation from Bertolt Brecht that Arendt’s husband found years after the trial that “gave him and Hannah Arendt the courage of their convictions.” The beginning of the citation reads: “The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.”)


In her response to Scholem, Arendt makes two frequently cited claims. First, Arendt writes: “(…) in this sense I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.” Second, Arendt states: “What unsettles [verstört] you is that my arguments and my approach are different from what you are used to; in other words, what is irritating [das Ärgerliche] is that I am independent. By this I mean, on the one hand, that I do not belong to any organization and always speak only for myself, and on the other hand, that I have great confidence in Lessing’s Selbstdenken, for which, I think, no ideology, no public opinion, and no ‘convictions’ can ever be a substitute.” It might seem from these two claims that Arendt is opposing the thinking of an independent self to the feelings (love, sympathy, Herzenstakt) of the collective. Irony could then be seen as the means by which the independent individual distances herself from the collective. However, it is important to remember that for Arendt, thinking never happens in isolation. Therefore, a better reading of Arendt’s tone might be that Arendt attempts to position herself, through irony, as a person in public or in a public. If Eichmann’s thoughtlessness reduces language to rationalization and calculation devoid of any orientation towards publicness, Herzenstakt is not going to remedy this problem. Arendt’s irony, on the other hand, might call into being a public, opening up space for publicness where thinking might become possible again.

According to this reading of Arendt’s tone, the idea that Arendt was right about Eichmann but should have communicated her “message” differently for it to be “effective” misses the point. Instead, what is called for is an attunement to Arendt’s writing that does not separate “content” from rhetoric, a responsiveness in the interest of a publicness that does not require tact, sympathy, or agreement, but thinking.

Irony in Eichmann in Jerusalem has recently become a central topic in Arendt scholarship. For further reading, I particularly recommend the chapters on Eichmann in Jerusalem in Lyndsey Stonebridge’s The Judicial Imagination (2011) and in Judith Butler’s Parting Ways (2013).

-Michiel Bot

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Secondhand Gun Smoke

"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."

Hannah Arendt, On Violence

The instruments that Hannah Arendt refers to in this quote are instruments of violence, that is to say, weapons.  Weapons, which in the main, translates to firearms, make it possible for One to commit acts of violence against All. And this fact has been brought into sharp focus in light of the devastating tragedy of this past December 14th, 2012:  the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a 20-year-old man using a semi-automatic assault rifle that belonged to his mother, the first victim of a killing spree that ended when he turned his weapon on himself and took his own life. The extreme depravity of this incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation, and reports of subsequent shootings of a more commonplace variety have been picked up by the news media, whereas previously they have more often than not been ignored. Fulfilling their function as agenda-setters, journalists have placed gun violence high on the list of national debates, reflecting the outrage of many citizens, as well as the genuine concern of a significant number of leaders and officials in government and organized religion.

Despite the fact that many citizens find the status quo intolerable, and favor legislation that would increase the limitations on the types of weaponry citizens can legally purchase and own, and on the requirements for sale and ownership of firearms, there has been considerable opposition to any form of what is commonly referred to as gun control. That pushback had come from what is sometimes referred to as the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association being the primary organization representing the firearms industry, and citizens who insist that our constitution's second amendment guarantees them the freedom to arm themselves as they see fit. And whereas one side mostly speaks in the language of moderation, arguing for reasonable restrictions on firearms sales, the other tends to speak in an extremist language of absolutes, arguing against any abridgement of rights and freedom, maintaining that gun control legislation is completely ineffective, and that, in the words of NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Fighting fire with fire is not a method favored by firefighters, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and likewise fighting firearms with firearms is a tactic of last resort for putting an end to gun violence. Firefighters stress the importance of prevention, and we certainly are entitled to ask, how can we prevent a bad guy from getting hold of a gun in the first place? When prevention is ineffective, and violence ensues, it may be necessary to engage in further violence as a countermeasure. But even if the result is cessation rather than escalation, the situation already represents a failure and breakdown of the community. As Arendt explains,

the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.

LaPierre's insistence that the only way to stop violence is with violence is not only simplistic in his childish morality of good guys vs. bad guys, but in his view of the situation as being One against One. Again, it would certainly be reasonable to concede the point that violent action on the part of one individual is sometimes required to put an end to violent action on the part of another individual, and such action is authorized on the part of duly appointed representatives of the law, e.g., police. But in acting in the role of police, such individuals are acting as representatives of the All, so that what appears to be One against One is in fact a case of All against One.  But LaPierre's notion of a good guy with a gun is not a police officer—indeed police departments typically favor stricter gun control—but an armed private citizen. In other words, his One against One would exist in a larger context of All against All, everyone armed in defense against everyone else, everyone prepared to engage in violence against everyone else.

That guns are instruments of violence ought to be clear. You cannot cut a steak with a gun. You cannot chop wood with a gun. You cannot excavate a mine with a gun. Unlike knives, axes, and even explosives, firearms have no practical use other than to harm and kill living things. There are recreational applications, granted, but there is nothing new about violence in recreational activities, boxing, wrestling, and fencing all have their origins in antiquity, while eastern martial arts disciplines have grown quite popular in the United States over the past half century, and football has become our most popular sport. It follows that hunting is simply another violent recreational activity, as we are now 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and few if any of us live in the wilderness as nomadic hunter-gatherers.  And target ranges, skeet shooting, and the like, all of which use obvious surrogates for human and animal bodies, are essentially recreational activities, apart from their function in training individuals  how to use firearms.

Instruments of violence, like all tools, are made to be used, and their violence cannot be confined to prescribed targets and situations. So with All against All, everyone lives under the shadow of violence, the possibility of being fired upon serving as a guarantee against bad behavior. From the individual's point of view, everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential menace that must be guarded against. And of course the danger they pose is greatly amplified if they are bearing arms. So peace is achieved through mutual intimidation, and at best a respect based on threat and fear. Under these circumstances, there is no solid foundation for political action based on consensus and cooperation, let alone social cohesion. With All against All, the potential for action taken by All against One is minimized.

Reducing if not eliminating the potential for All against One is central to the ideology of the NRA, for whom the All is not so much everyone else as it is our representatives in positions of authority. Armed private citizens are the good guys with guns, and it is not only the "criminals and crazies" who are bad guys, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the government. Ignoring the fact that historically, the second amendment was understood as granting individual states in the union the right to create militias in the absence of a standing federal army, gun advocates invoke "the right to bear arms" as a check against government tyranny, insisting that they are entitled to the same right to revolution that was claimed by the founders of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. That the Confederate states invoked the same right in seceding from the Union, igniting a debate settled by the most violent of means, is of little import it seems. The Civil War apparently did not end with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but merely underwent a transformation into a subtle insurgency movement that continues to this day. This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast majority of American citizens, including the multitudes that flocked to movie theaters in recent months to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

Arendt drives home the point that violence exists in inverse relationship to power.  Power is derived from the All, from the consent and agreement of the governed, the source of political legitimacy. Power is the ability to achieve goals without the use of violence. When governments are forced to resort to violence, it reflects a loss of power, one that is difficult to reclaim, and may ultimately result in that governments demise. Violence can destroy power, that is the lesson of revolution, but it cannot create power, only political action can. It follows that gun advocates see the second amendment as curbing the power of government, thereby empowering the individual. That sense of power is something of a chimera, however, for as soon as firearms are used, their power dissipates. If they are used against another private citizen, even a so-called bad guy, the user will have to answer to the legal system, and may be found guilty of unlawful action, or subject to civil liability. If they are used against a government official, the user will sooner or later discover that he (or she, but almost always it is a he) is outgunned, that One against All may only succeed in the short-term but will eventually fall to the vastly superior firepower of organized authorities.

American society, like all societies, looks to a set of values that, upon close inspection, holds logical contradictions, values that, from a distance, appear to be psychologically consistent with each other. We value the individual, and adhere to the most extreme form of individualism of any western society, but we also value the community. We seek a balance between the two, but ultimately they come in conflict with one another, the One vs. the All.  And we value freedom, but we also value equality. Both seem fundamental, but freedom includes the freedom to excel, to dominate, to gain an advantage, enforce and reinforce inequity, while any effort to be truly egalitarian requires restrictions on those freedoms. Moreover, we believe in capitalism, free enterprise as it were, but also in democracy, the American way, politically-speaking, and we assume the two can co-exist without discord. But capitalism is inherently undemocratic, favoring oligarchies and the absence of government regulation and oversight, whereas the exercise of democracy extends to policies that affect and constrain economic and financial activities, and the organization and conduct of business.

In the past, Americans have slightly favored the individual, freedom, and capitalism, all of which are aligned with one another, over the community, equality, and democracy, although the emphasis has shifted somewhat depending on circumstances (for example, during wartime, we become increasingly more likely to rally around the values of community and equality, and belief in democracy). To put it into Arendt's more succinct terms, we try to find a balance between the One and the All, but to the extent that the two are in conflict, we lean a bit towards the One.

In favoring the One, we tolerate the One against All, the result being that we are scarred by gun violence to a degree vastly out of proportion with other western societies. For gun advocates, gun ownership is an individual right and an essential freedom that must not be abridged. Never mind the fact that "the right to bear arms" is rarely found on any listing of basic human rights, as opposed to the right to live in safety and security, free from fear and threat, a right that gun ownership jeopardizes at least as much as it protects. And never mind the fact that our first amendment freedoms are subject to significant limitations and governed by legislation, and those freedoms are listed in a clear and unequivocal manner, in contrast to the second amendment's convoluted and confused diction ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"). It is also interesting to note that gun advocates like LaPierre do not hesitate to try to shift the focus onto the first amendment, blaming violence in film, television programming, and videogames for incidents like the Newtown shooting. And what is often downplayed is that the gun lobby, in resisting all attempts at gun control, are defending the interests of the gun industry, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms. Of course, it is hard to play up the importance of free enterprise in the wake of the murder of elementary school children.

In their radical views on the second amendment, and their absolute embrace of individual freedom and capitalism against the interests of community, equality, and democracy, gun ideologues like LaPierre insist on the supremacy of One against All, and it is not surprising that the result is an extreme form of violence.  And, as I noted earlier, leaders representing the interests of the All against the One tend to speak, naturally enough, in the language of practical politics operating within a democratic form of government, the language of negotiation and compromise, but find themselves confronted on the other side with the abstract absolutes characteristic of the language of ideology. You might say, what we got here is a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, although the two sides probably understand each other better than they let on.

The ideologues know that if they refuse to blink first, the compromisers will most likely give up and move on to more pressing matters. And the compromisers know that the ideologues refusal to negotiate gives them an excuse to turn away from a divisive issue that may cost them a measure of support in the next election, and deal with more pressing matters with a greater probability of reaching a successful conclusion. Only now, after Newtown, is there talk of having reached a tipping point in public opinion, one that may pressure the compromisers to insist upon a settlement, and may force the ideologues to accept the pragmatic need for negotiation. The likely outcome is that the ideologues will make some minor concessions, allowing for some small progress on gun control, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a far cry from the measures needed to curb the high incidence of gun violence in the United States.

Change will come, because the alternative is intolerable. To the extent that we live in increasingly denser populated areas, in urban sprawl rather than rural isolation, so that the consequences of violent action become increasingly more catastrophic, we require more civilized, more civil living conditions, the insurance against violence that can only come from the power of organized authority subject to political oversight, not private citizens responsible only to themselves. To live in a society of All against All is ultimately regressive, and can only make sense if the social system disintegrates, a remote possibility that cannot be balanced against the actuality of incident after incident of gun violence.

Change will come, but it may only come gradually, given our cultural bias towards the One against All, and it may only come generationally.  Over the past half century, Americans have become increasingly more risk aversive, as more information about potential risks to health and safety have been made available through the electronic media. However, as Henry Perkinson argues in No Safety in Numbers, it is the risks that we have no control over that we are particularly averse to. When the risk is perceived as a matter of individual choice, an expression of personal freedom, we are less averse to it than when it is understood to fall outside of our locus of control. Prohibition is often invoked as the archetype of failed measures to eliminate harmful behavior, and the word prohibition is often thrown into discussions on gun control and similar measures in order to summon up those negative connotations. Despite the potential risks to health and safety from alcoholic inebriation, over-consumption, and addiction, drinking was seen as an exercise of free will, and therefore acceptable. It was only with the campaign against drinking and driving that the locus of risk was shifted from the individual consuming intoxicating beverages to the innocent victims of drunk driving, accident victims who had no choice in the matter, whose freedom was in fact curtailed by the drinker. The same is true of tobacco.

Once medical research established that smoking causes emphysema, heart disease, and cancer, modest change in American smoking habits ensued. It was not until the findings about secondhand smoke were established that real cultural change took place, a truly extraordinary shift in attitudes and behavior about smoking. The key was that secondhand smoke exposed individuals to risks that they had no control over, risks that they were subjected to against their own volition.

While this form of risk-aversion is relatively recent, a more basic understanding that permeates American society is that individuals can exercise their freedoms as long as those freedoms do not jeopardize others. The early assertion of a right to own slaves could only persist insofar as individuals were willing to view the enslaved as somehow less than fully human; otherwise the freedom to enslave clearly cannot justify the denial of another individual's freedom. Similarly, free enterprise and free markets, the freedom of individuals to engage in any kind of business and labor practices they might chose to, eventually was understood to conflict with the rights of labor, of workers and employees, as well as the rights of consumers, so that the freedom of capitalism is subject to constraints imposed in the interests of the community and democracy.

In the face of the violence of One against All, what is needed is the power, in the positive sense of democratic political action, of All against One. The power of public opinion and a growing consensus will serve as a bulletproof vest to protect the body politic from assault by the weapons industry and gun ideologues. And the best place to begin is by talking about the dangers that uncontrolled access to firearms pose to citizens who do not choose to live with these instruments of violence, citizens whose freedoms and rights and very lives are put at risk without their consent, citizens who all are victims of secondhand gun smoke.

-Lance Strate


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.