Arendt and Breaking with Tradition

Kate Bermingham, a graduate student in political theory at the University of Notre Dame, recently shared an image with us of her personal Arendt library. Please see below:

Arendt and Breaking with Tradition 1

Here is what Kate has to say about her image:

“I work primarily on Arendt and the Frankfurt School, but–a la Arendt–my interests span the history of political thought. Right now, my questions are especially focused on the interaction between theories of modern alienation, civic belonging, and aesthetic experience. Other areas of interest include critical feminist theory and politics and literature.

Arendt and Breaking with Tradition 2“This bookshelf contains most of my political theory collection from Homer and the Greek tragedians (political through and through) up through Rawls and Habermas. Arendt is prominently placed on the top right (along with Heidegger, Benjamin, and Adorno). (See Right.)

“I didn’t start reading Arendt’s work seriously until graduate school, but as soon as I did, I felt I understood what Heidegger must mean by “a clearing”; for me, Arendt brought a world into view. More than any other thinker I’ve read–even more than Machiavelli or Nietzsche who can be so scathing–she seems to breathe life into the tradition, a tradition she clearly loves even as she breaks with it (and breaks it).

“Stylistically, I admire the vitality and confidence in Arendt’s writing. I also admire her for being a thinker who confounds categories, drawing on and recovering perspectives sometimes so far afield from her own.”

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A Meditation on Arendt, Rilke, & Guns

By Samantha Hill

“Because there is no true transcendence in this ordered world, one also cannot exceed the world, but only succeed to higher ranks.”

— Hannah Arendt, “Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’”*

Arendt and Stern’s essay on Rilke’s Duino Elegies is a sumptuous meditation that weaves together questions of worldliness, being-in-hearing, alienation, the lover, time, and solitude. The despair expressed in the Elegies is an expression of our human world. It is a longing spoken in the space between making a home in this world and the acknowledgement that both God and the World have abandoned us. This “belonging-nowhere,” as Arendt calls it, constitutes both the nihilistic and religious quality of the poems. Arendt reads the Elegies as a “conscious renunciation of the demand to be heard.” In this conscious renunciation, there is despair at not being heard, along with despair in the desire to speak, knowing that there will be no answer. Despair, in these terms, is the only residuum of religiousness, and the elegy is the only form that can give expression not to what has been lost but the condition of loss itself.

What do guns have to do with Rilke and with loss? Continue reading

Machine-man and man-machines in the last stage of the laboring society


“The last stage of the laboring society, the society of job holders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized’, functional type of behavior”.

-Hannah Arendt,  “The Human Condition”

About fifty years ago Hannah Arendt diagnosed the “last stage of the laboring society”.  Human beings can only live as “job holders” without access to the realm of freedom in the sense of the classical ideal of political action. For Arendt this state of affairs is the result of the development process of modernity. As the life of the species, the ‘social’ became the central interest of the public sphere. There is no margin for self-realization unless this is within the limits of an adaptation to the needs of the collective life process. Even a passive freedom of “sensing pain and trouble of living” is no longer permitted. Human beings not only have to function automatically, they have to “bow with joy” to their condition. This ideological aspect of the contemporary conditio humana is perhaps the one that outrages Arendt the most. The anesthesia of the mind in modern society: Individuals have to “acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized’, functional type of behavior”.


Through her diagnosis Arendt addresses the development of the “machine-man” in the laboring society. Subliminal to the process of the modern liberation of individuality, which reaches a pinnacle in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the private sphere of the ancient household as a place of labor is extended to the whole of society. At the end of the day individuals have to conform to the needs of the life production process in a way that makes it impossible for them even to look after their rights. This is the age of the machine-man. “Functionality” becomes the grounding element of human behavior. Positivistic fate in progress represents its civil religion: When every aspect of society could be traced back to its proper functioning there were no limits to life perfection.

With this result, to speak with Max Weber, a specific idea achieved an overwhelming impact on societal transformation. Descartes’ separation of res cogitans and res extensa produced the idea of an animal-machine without a soul, which could be completely reduced to the functional needs of rationalistic world domination. Some hundred years later La Mettrie completed the reflection with the idea of the homme-machine. Without knowing its sources in cultural history, industrialization translated the idea radically into action: By being reduced to machine-men individuals had to fulfill the needs of a mechanized production system. In order to face the anthropological consequences of the industrial development of modernity, Marx and Engels provided the plot for the political redemption of the machine-men. The only way to escape alienation is to attain the complete automation of the factory, and thus the substitution of job holders by intelligent machines. In 1921 reversed this utopia in a dystopia. He coined the word “robot” for his theater piece “Rossum’s Universal Robots” using the Slavic word robota, which traditionally means the work period (corvée) a serf had to give for his lord. By reviving the theme of the Jewish legend about the Golem, Čapek put the religious prohibition of recreating human beings at the forefront of the debate. There could be no liberation of machine-man by constructing man-machines without provoking a rebellion of the latter against their creators: this has been the subject of all science fiction literature and film about man-machines ever since.

A sociologically based intercultural survey about the current development of robotics shows that both the scientific utopia of creating man-machines as well as the public’s fears about their potential danger are present in the reflections of European and American engineers. Japanese roboticists on the other hand think that the introduction of man-machines into social interaction does not provoke any dystopic consequences. In an age of an increasing crisis of labor as the central category of modernity, technology research tries to develop substitutes for the missing animal laborans. Its leading idea is that an aging society needs support and care for humans who live long after they have ceased to be job holders. Instead of thinking about a different organization of society, decision-makers and stakeholders aim at substituting the absent young job holders with machines that have all the characteristics of functionality pointed out in Arendt’s diagnosis of the last stage of laboring society’s members. The machine-man reproduces himself as a man-machine.

But furthermore, the empirical surveys show that utopia stalls with the implementation of the man-machine. Technically, it is very hard to realize robots that can effectively substitute working humans in a real-world environment. Societally, there is a very low level of acceptance for man-machines, not least because of deep ethical concerns about human–robot interaction. Legal issues offer an even greater problem: Neither the European, American nor Japanese legal system provides proper legal instruments to allow robots to enter real-world settings.


This background strongly influences the further development of technological research. So it is interesting to observe how developers worldwide slowly abandon the plan of realizing a substitute for the animal laborans as an autonomous entity. Following the design guidelines of “Ambient Assisted Living”, single parts of its body are disaggregated and put into the environment of the pensioned job holders. The man-machine only survives as an executer (Europe) or as a communication tool (Japan) for an overall ambient intelligence. Robots thereby become an interface for the “rule of nobody” of a superior control instance within the private life of the discharged job holders. No advent of autonomous robots seems therefore to be expected, if not as a result of undercover research into military robotics that plans for their introduction in the extra-legal domain of war.

Machine-men hesitate to realize the utopia of man-machines. They seem to abandon the idea of making man-machines full members of the public sphere, as they are to be seen e. g. in the film adaptation of Asimov’s I, Robot. This current stage of the laboring society poses the question of its critical assessment. It would be interesting to know what Hannah Arendt would have said about this.

-Gregor Fitzi

University of Potsdam, Germany

See You Again

“To my dear Hannah,

In these years our friendship has stood the test.

In this relationship we no longer need to have any worries.


Your Kurt.

New York, April 30th 1945.”

 “Meiner lieben Hannah,” reads a handwritten inscription in a copy of Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial), gifted from publisher Kurt Wolff to Hannah Arendt in New York; the book is a Schocken Verlag 1935 edition published in Berlin. “In diesen Jahren hat sich unseren Freundschaft bewährt,” Wolff writes: “Wir brauchen in dieser Beziehung keine Sorge mehr zu haben. Auf Wiedersehen, Dein Kurt. New York, 30. April 1945.”

This inscription stands as a symbol of survival on many levels: from the survival of the names mentioned – Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka, and Kurt Wolff as well as Schocken Publishing House – to the survival of friendship, to the implications of the date which invite this reading.

Kurt Wolff, who founded the publishing house Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig in 1912 and soon became one of the leading publishers of expressionist literature in Germany, worked extensively with Kafka’s works up until the author’s death in 1924. With the exception of the unfinished, posthumously published writings, Wolff published the majority of Kafka’s works. A look at their correspondence indicates how significant Wolff was in convincing a hesitant Kafka to prepare his manuscripts for publication. Despite his efforts to come to terms with the gap between what the public wants to read and what the public should want to read, a problem which troubled him personally and financially throughout his publishing career, Wolff closed down the Kurt Wolff Verlag in 1933.

Wolff came from a German-Jewish family and, after fleeing to the United States, he started a new publishing house with his wife, Helen Wolff, what was to become Pantheon Books in New York. It was there in New York in the early 1940s that he first made Hannah Arendt’s acquaintance.

Although Arendt never met Kafka personally (she was 17 when Kafka died), she did seriously engage with his work during the last thirty years of her life. Indeed, after immigrating to the United States in 1941 she resolved to ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ many eastern-European Jewish authors threatened by abandonment through an idea for a ‘Jewish Journal’ (Jüdische Zeitschrift) featuring these writers. As Marie Luise Knott writes in her co-authored book with Barbara Hahn on Arendt, Von den Dichtern erwarten wir Wahrheit, this goal was something which, while never reaching fruition, endured throughout Arendt’s career.

Kafka, in particular, represented for Arendt a distinct voice articulating the alienation involved in the assimilation into a new place or society. In fact, after finally meeting Salman Schocken (of Schocken Verlag) in 1945 and accepting a position as a Chief Editor at Schocken Books (which had also recently recently moved its offices from Berlin to New York), her initial project was to edit the first English translation of Kafka’s diaries. Even before that, Arendt wrote an essay in 1944 for the 20th anniversary of Kafka’s 1924 passing, entitled “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation”; she spends the first half of the essay discussing The Trial (the novel Kurt Wolff chose for his inscription a year later). Kafka also appears in Arendt’s essay “The Jew as Pariah”, and she would go on to work with Helen Wolff, after Kurt’s death, for example, to co-edit Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations in 1968.

With all of this in mind, why did Wolff send this particular book of Kafka’s to Arendt, and why at this specific date?

“April 30th 1945” has become a historically significant date:  it is the date of Adolf Hitler’s suicide, marking a turning point and a near-end to World War II. It is unlikely, though, that anyone in New York knew of this on the actual day it happened. For Wolff and Arendt, however, both transplanted German Jews, the date after the fact also connects them symbolically to their survival of Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust.

Postcard from Kafka to Wolff

In a different yet related reading, the date concerns Kurt Wolff’s publishing ventures in New York where he started Pantheon Books in January 1943. In Kurt Wolff: A Portrait in Essays and Letters, he is quoted as having written that “Pantheon was founded on an extremely small amount of initial capital to give me the chance to earn a living. It was an experiment- and since no matter what the balance sheet says on April 30, 1944, a profit is unavoidable- the experiment is a success.” One can read this, in conjunction with the Kafka inscription, as April 30 taking on a new meaning in his life. It marks, in addition to his personal survival, the survival of his first publishing undertaking in the United States, and it now points to his valuable lasting friendship with Hannah Arendt.

Wolff, though Kafka’s first publisher, never published The Trial. Max Brod prepared the manuscript from Kafka’s Nachlass for Verlag Die Schmiede in Berlin in 1925, then in 1931 gave full publishing rights of Kafka’s works and manuscripts to Schocken Verlag. That The Trial itself was not published by Wolff, but more importantly, was not published in Kafka’s lifetime, speaks to this theme of survival in the inscription. The Trial survived Kafka, this copy published in 1935 survived World War II, and Arendt, through her essays and editorial work, helped Kafka to survive and arrive in the public world after 1945.

Wolff sent this book to Arendt certainly not as a reading recommendation, but rather as a symbolic gift. For Arendt, as Wolff surely knew, had not only already read The Trial, but had also written essays on it. Thus, in contrast to other books in her personal library, there are no annotations or markings to be found anywhere else in the book. This particular copy was not meant to be read, it seems, but to be appreciated in a different way.

To conclude the inscription, Wolff writes Auf Wiedersehen. To translate this as the usual “Goodbye” gives this entire gift – of the book, of their friendship, of their survival – a perhaps unnecessarily ominous and melancholic feeling. Rather, the literal meaning is here the more accurate one: “See you again”.

– Kerk Soursourian, Bard College