Judith Butler on Arendt & Revenge

“Arendt’s Death Sentences”

Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 48 No. 3, 2011. pp. 280-295.

Over the last decade Judith Butler has expanded her focus from the constitutive role of performance for gender to broader questions of power. This article focuses on a contradiction between law and revenge in Eichmann in Jerusalem and examines the perplexing last pages of the postscript that appear, unexpectedly, to come down on the side of revenge.

As most readers of Arendt know, after a circuitous but impressive scholarly path, Arendt burst on to the cultural scene with Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963.

Often condemned for its tone as much (if not more) as its contents, the book continues to draw attacks from those who fault Arendt for criticizing the prosecutor’s attempt to conflate the specific trial of Eichmann with the Holocaust as a whole and for discussing the role of the Jewish councils in Nazi Germany. Even the most refined minds of the time refused to accept the limited scope of Arendt’s report: Gershom Scholem accused Arendt of lacking “ahavath Yisrael” (solidarity with the Jewish people).

From this perspective, Butler offers a particularly bold reading of the text. She begins with a description of the conflict between two conceptions of justice in the trial. Arendt continually argues against vengeance and criticizes the trial for scapegoating Eichmann and making him stand in for the entire Holocaust. Instead, she argues for a strictly legal judgment and sees the judges as deciding correctly in their verdict. One might expect the argument (and the book) to end there. However, in the last pages of the postscript she presents a long imagined speech from the judges that would better explain their reasoning, and this reasoning has an undeniable element of revenge:

“Because he had been implicated and had played a central role in an enterprise whose open purpose was to eliminate certain ‘races’ from the surface of the earth, he had to be eliminated.” (Arendt, Eichmann, 277)

Butler asks what justification this “verdict voice” can appeal to, since Arendt does not explain her statement that we can’t “share the earth” with such a person. She carefully describes the tone and syntax of the speech, noting for example, that “the voice moves in sudden fugitive shifts between ‘I’ and ‘we’” (Butler 294). Through these shifts the reader sometimes recognizes Arendt’s voice from earlier in the book that calmly argues for norms, but often the voice supports revenge instead. Butler suggests that the two registers are not meant to meld but that the mix of voices itself might indicate a connection that she wish had existed between the judges and people. Drawing on a key concept from The Human Condition, Butler writes, “the plurality enacted here […] is unchosen, compelled, agonistic, and inconsistent” (295). In other words, the voice speaks for a people that is forced to present itself despite its divisions. One might say that Butler’s reading of Eichmann, unlike that of Scholem, does indicate a sympathy with the Jewish people, albeit one that abandons unquestioning support.

Most strikingly, Butler says that this “punishment invariably continues some part of the crime” (Butler 295). The voice is not clearly attributed and in its multiplicity and lack of clear origin, Butler suggests a judgment from a specific kind of plurality, one that is implicated with the crime that it takes a stand on. As such it offers a specific case of a judgment that isn’t based only on pre-existing law.

Butler’s interpretation of the difficult moves that she highlights will undoubtedly provoke. Since she allows Arendt’s plural voices including her view that revenge can play a role in Eichmann’s verdict, her conclusion is counterintuitive- if not a stark affront to our common sense understanding of the law. Butler thus parallels recent arguments by Roger Berkowitz, that Arendt opens the question of vengeance because modern understandings of criminal law are inadequate to understand Eichmann’s guilt. If Berkowitz finds Arendt’s other voice in the language of non-reconciliation, Butler insists above all on plurality. By submitting one of the most perplexing passages of Eichmann to detailed examination and exegesis, both authors offer concrete examples of how Arendt’s conception of judgment might work.

Read a related article by Judith Butler here.

-Jeffrey Champlin

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