Richard Brody writes of “Hannah Arendt,” the new movie by Margarethe von Trotta, “The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t do Arendt justice”—a rhetorical gambit that suggests at least a fair-minded inquiry into Arendt’s thought. But Brody then proceeds to accuse Arendt of a propensity toward “monstrous abstractions.” Her tendency toward abstraction occurs despite what Brody calls “her meticulous pileup of facts,” which has such “a terrifying, implacable, unbearable power” as to render her book “overwhelming, incommensurable, alien to human experience.” Brody repeats the widespread error that Arendt accepts “at face value” Eichmann’s claim not to be an anti-Semite. Arendt, Brody writes, misses the “mystery, ambiguity, vastness, complexity, and horror” of the Eichmann trial. Arendt and von Trotta, Brody writes in a synthesis of reality and fiction, both make “the same mistake” of setting up “’thinking’” as a special category of activity.” Arendt, pace Brody, “writes from the point of view of a philosopher, not of a journalist”—as if that critique explains her mistake in thinking that “thinking” might be important. The only half-positive sentence about Arendt comes in the last line where he concedes: “From [Arendt’s] philosophical, historical, and journalistic failures, Arendt created an accidental literary masterwork despite itself.” If von Trotta’s movie doesn’t do Arendt justice, one wonders what Brody would think necessary for the movie to do her justice.
He tells us. To do Arendt justice, von Trotta should have focused on “giving small gestures and daily labors grand scope.” He actually says that Arendt should be more ridiculous and less dignified: “Von Trotta preserves Arendt’s dignity to the point of dehumanization, depriving the protagonist of any trait that could render her ridiculous.” He insists on seeing more of her regular life with family and friends, after acknowledging that von Trotta’s movie does offer a balanced insight into the importance of Arendt’s friends in her life. The implication is we want more gossip and less thinking, a portrayal of the chatty girlish Hannah rather than the austere chain smoker. Aside from the misogyny in such a statement about one of the great thinkers of the 20th century who happened to have been a woman, Brody here exhibits his fundamental lack of understanding of all things concerning Arendt. For Arendt was not the least bit interested in “small gestures and daily labors.” She was a thinker of surprising and unexpected deeds that, she argued, can only be measured by their greatness. Nothing chatty here.
What galls Brody above all is that a serious movie is made about a serious thinker that takes seriously precisely what is unique (for better or worse) about Arendt—her insistence on being different and apart. Arendt called herself an “intentional pariah,” someone who sought freedom and independence by standing aloof from society. Brody finds such moral seriousness silly and Arendt’s insistence on self-thinking brings forth his disdain for what he dismisses as the false “gleaming nobility of the life of the mind” that diverts us from the truth of “the turmoil of regular life.” Von Trotta’s movie, with the extraordinary assistance of Barbara Sukowa’s acting, nails this most essential characteristic of Arendt’s persona to perfection. For that achievement of cinematic, biographical, and intellectual fidelity, Brody skewers both von Trotta and Arendt. The exploration of uniqueness is apparently something Brody cannot abide.
The absolute low point of his rejection of Arendt’s idea of thinking comes when he expresses through multiple examples his complete discomfort with thinking itself. As A.O. Scott and others including myself have argued, the genius of von Trotta’s movie is the setting to screen not a theory of thinking, but the act itself. For Brody, this is no accomplishment. This is because for him thinking is nothing special. Thinking, he argues, is banal. It is, as he writes, commonplace and, in the end, common. Thus thinking and showing thinking both are easy: "Actually, the work of thinking is easy, almost effortless, to show—it’s what almost every movie is made of."
To bring home his point, Brody offers six links to putative examples of thinking on display in movies. The first is to an actress peeling a potato for 150 seconds, an exercise in the profundity of mundane life. The second extols the virtue of killing and violence for masculinity. The third, from Murnau’s silent “The Last Laugh,” shows Max Schreck in emotional agony. The fourth, from “Bringing up Baby,” has Katharine Hepburn tricking Cary Grant into coming over and helping her with a leopard. You get the idea. There is no thinking going on in these scenes. That is apparently Brody point: thinking doesn’t exist except in the most mundane and calculating of ways.
Brody’s antipathy to the act of thinking is flagrant. He writes: “The movie’s sanctimonious depiction of “thinking” as something greater than what the regular run of people do is one of the signs of its artistic failure.” But Brody’s defense of the common man is misplaced, for Arendt in no ways denies that run of the mill people can think. On the contrary, she imagines that uneducated people raised with traditions and character are frequently more thoughtful than intellectuals. Those trained in ideas and abstractions are uniquely susceptible to the power of rationalization and the sway of ideologies in ways that those relying on common sense are not.
That everyone can think does not mean that we all do. Thinking, Arendt insists, is rare. It is fundamentally distinguished from reasoning. It is not the same as calculating. It is also not the same as being creative, intelligent, inventive or smart. Thinkers are not necessarily intellectuals. Above all, thinkers are distinguished from “problem solvers,” those educated persons of “great self-confidence” who are uncommonly adept at convincing themselves of their infallibility. Thinking doubts and puts up obstacles. Its primary effect is to raise questions rather than offering answers.
We need to understand that by thinking Arendt means something specific. Thinking means, above all, Selbstdenken—an untranslatable German word for “self-thinking,” or thinking for oneself. It is the act of having a conversation with oneself in which one acknowledges the basic moral premise that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Such thinking is free from social conventions, clichés, and oversimplifications. Thinking is also quite distinct from social science, which seeks answers precisely in the kind of normalization of unique actions that thinking rebels against. Only thinking, Arendt argued, has the potential to remind us of our human dignity and free us to resist our servility. Such thinking, in Arendt’s view, cannot be taught: it can only be exemplified.
We cannot learn thinking through catechism or study. We learn thinking only through experience, when we are inspired by those whose thinking enthralls us—when we encounter someone who stands apart from the crowd.
Brody’s review dismisses Arendt’s understanding of thinking with an unknowing wave of his hand. He reduces thinking to an emotional scream—like the agony on Shreck’s face— or cunning—Hepburn knocking over a tea set and pretending a leopard is attacking her. Brody doesn’t much like thinking and finds it pretentious and overly intellectual. So he makes fun of those who strive to write or make films about thinking, calling what he won’t understand “soft-core philosophical porn.”
At another point, Brody cites interviews with Claude Lanzmann to raise questions about Arendt’s portrayals of the Jewish leaders who collaborated or cooperated with the Nazis during the war. There are legitimate disagreements one can have with Arendt on this issue, and von Trotta’s film gives these opposing views full voice, something a reader of Brody’s review would never learn. In the film two of Arendt’s dearest friends turn away from her and Hans Jonas lambasts her for unfeeling arrogance in refusing to see the moral and practical tragedies of Jewish leaders during the war. Jonas is right to point to Arendt’s arrogance, and von Trotta confronts that arrogance head on, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether such independence is called for. Jonas’ critique of his friend is more blistering—and more insightful—than anything Brody might add.
Hannah Arendt was neither a saint nor infallible. She may in the end be wrong about the power of thinking to save or dissuade people from doing evil. Neither I nor the Arendt Center has an interest in holding her on a pedestal. The Center regularly publishes posts and essays critical of her work; on our blog you can find a collection of reviews of “Hannah Arendt,” the movie, with critical reviews that raise meaningful questions about both her and the movie. I have no problem with criticizing Arendt intelligently. Such criticism, however, demands some baby steps toward taking Arendt seriously. Brody merely crawls around throwing sand.
You can read Brody’s review here.
Louis Pasteur once wrote:
I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.
To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.
It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.
All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.
The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.
David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.
What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.
Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do? Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.
The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.”” And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.
Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.
Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.
I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.
As Birkirts writes:
For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.
Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.
Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.
Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.
And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.
Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology
Answering Arendt’s Indictments of Social Science
My blog post today is the first of a series of contributions that aims to bring Arendt’s thought into conversation with cultural anthropology, my home discipline, and other modes of social analysis. At first glance, Arendt and anthropologists would seem to make for strange bedfellows, since their arguments have rarely intersected in any explicit way: Arendt engaged little if at all with cultural anthropology in her wide-ranging corpus, and anthropologists have tended to avoid Arendt, despite the inspiration they often take from other philosophers and political theorists. Nevertheless, the guiding premise behind this series is that Arendtian and anthropological analyses can be brought together in a manner that offers a great deal to wider contemplation of the human condition. This potential can only be realized, however, if we also recognize the frictions that emerge from their contrasting starting points and lines of argument.
Peter Baehr’s recent book, Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences (2010), offers an enlightening vantage on these frictions and the difficulties they present for such an encounter. Indeed, Arendt regarded sociology and the other social science disciplines with the utmost skepticism. On the one hand, she took issue with what she regarded as their deterministic theories of historical causality and their misguided presumptions about human self-interest. As she contended in The Human Condition, the social sciences “[aimed] to reduce man as a whole, in all his activity, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal” (p. 45). In so doing, they not only denied the existence of human freedom; they also reflected—and helped to perpetuate—the very mass societies they ostensibly explained. At the same time, the social sciences operated (in Arendt’s understanding) on the core assumption that “human conduct springs essentially from self-interested, instrumental, and utilitarian considerations” (Baehr, p. 14). This premise rendered the social sciences utterly incapable of coming to terms with the non- and even anti-utilitarian nature of totalitarianism.
Such shortcomings were only further compounded by social scientists’ reliance on established conceptual models and their penchant for historical analogy. In Arendt’s view, the social sciences were entirely too quick to cast specific social phenomena as reflexes or symptoms of underlying transhistorical processes (such as the materialist dialectic proposed by Marx). As a result, they were prone to untenable generalizations that occluded salient differences between distinct social and political forms (such as totalitarian concentration camps and institutions of slavery). In keeping with this complaint, Arendt harbored particular scorn for Weberian ideal types like charisma and bureaucracy, which she regarded as devices to “normalize” particular phenomena and make of them “an item or case of something already known” (Baehr, p. 26).
Arendt’s criticisms certainly apply to some forms of social science scholarship, particularly those that seize opportunistically on specific instances to engage in the kind of grand theorizing that bleaches human intercourse of particularity, emotion, and moral import. In such moments, complex human realities can and do become mere grist for the conceptual mill. Yet her dismissal of the social sciences ultimately strikes me as overdrawn. Many social scientists explore the conditions of human autonomy and historical novelty with greater nuance than she was prepared to admit. Moreover, many of them challenge the notion that human activity can only be explained in utilitarian terms. Cultural anthropology, in particular, has repeatedly highlighted how human beings arrange their lives in ways that defy scientific models of rationality.
Baehr remains a strong advocate of Arendt’s theorizing, but he also demonstrates the subtlety of social science analysis through three appreciative critics of her work in the 1940s and 1950s. The interdisciplinary scholar David Riesman, for example, found Arendt’s analysis of totalitarian society too sweeping: Arendt exaggerated the capacity of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes to rework human subjectivity, and ignored human beings’ stubborn ability to retain their individuality, exercise their agency, and otherwise elude total domination (Baehr, chapter 2, especially pp. 45-56). Riesman thereby drew worthwhile attention to the ways that Arendt, in her zeal to convey the pervasiveness of totalitarian power, neglected the sociology of everyday life.
The political sociologist Raymond Aron thoughtfully resisted Arendt’s notion that totalitarianism constituted a radical break with previous modes of rule. He related the emergence of totalitarianism to the existence of monopolistic political parties in Germany and the Soviet Union. He dissected the ways that totalitarian terror, especially in the Soviet Union, was legally codified and administratively routinized, rather than being entirely inscrutable and haphazard. And he insisted that totalitarian ideology was open to flexible application and transformation in a fashion that Arendt, with her focus on its uncompromising deductive rigidity, did not acknowledge (Baehr, chapter 3, especially pp. 77-87). On the basis of these specific claims, Aron contended that totalitarianism bore intelligible continuities with older modes of tyranny. As he did so, however, he admittedly shied away from the “mysterious margin” of nightmarish absurdity that he too observed in totalitarian regimes—and that Arendt traced so evocatively.
Finally, the sociologist Jules Monnerot sharply underscored the ways that totalitarian ideologies mobilized the fervor of their adherents through party gatherings, mass celebrations, and other ritual encounters. In the process, he likened totalitarianism to religious traditions (above all, Islam) in a fashion that resonated with other treatments of totalitarianism as a “secular” or “political religion” (Baehr, chapter 4, especially pp. 95-99). Arendt pointedly refused any such equation. In her account, religion provides limits and standards that protect the sacredness of human life; totalitarianism, by contrast, pursues the notion that “everything is possible and permitted,” and it regards particular human beings as superfluous and dispensable in its effort to transform human nature itself. Yet as Baehr notes, Arendt’s position did not resolve the question of totalitarianism’s (lack of) relationship with religion as decisively as she might have thought. In the end, it failed to take into account many witnesses’ quasi-religious experience of totalitarian performances, and it neglected the fact that religious forms and expressions did suffuse totalitarian discourse in demonstrable ways.
The point of Baehr’s book is not that we need to side either with Arendt or with her social science critics exclusively. I happen to find Riesman’s objections quite trenchant, but I also believe, like Baehr, that Aron’s confident diagnosis fails to grapple with the chaotic madness that characterized the Nazi and Stalinist regimes.
And as much as Arendt’s position on ritual and religion might be interrogated, her insistence that we maintain fine distinctions—and not succumb to easy generalizations and conflations—is a valuable one. One implication of this point is that we should be duly suspicious of any intellectual stance, including Arendt’s, which dismisses an entire realm of disciplinary inquiry root and branch. As Baehr’s book shows, rigorous social scientific scholarship can usefully probe the limits of Arendt’s assumptions, evidence, and arguments—just as it can lead us to a greater admiration of her insights.