Hannah Arendt and the Redemptive Power of Narrative
Selya Benhabib, Social Research, Vol. 57, No. 1, Philosophy and Politics II (spring 1990), pp. 167-196
Selya Benhabib, Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, sees Arendt as affirming the modernist move beyond the nation to universal human rights, while at the same time disparaging the social in a way that many critics see as anti-modern. As Roger Berkowitz explains regarding a later work, Benhabib works out this universal aspiration “with and against Arendt.” In this 1990 article, Benhabib makes only passing reference to Arendt’s famous critical phrase “the right to have rights.” Briefly put though, she sees Arendt’s concern not as a fundamental challenge but rather as an implicit spur for a broader guarantee of rights.
For Arendt the social, which in large part corresponds to economic activity, no longer remains in its proper place of the household, but emerges to obscure the public space of politics. One might then ask, is Arendt a Romantic proponent of a return to Greek origins, in line with Hölderlin, Hegel, and Heidegger? Benhabib denies this challenge, arguing instead that Arendt’s confrontation with National Socialism led her to develop a new idea
of political theory as “storytelling.” In light of this conception, her analysis of the decline of the public space cannot be considered a nostalgic Verfallsgeschichte (a history of decline). Rather, it must be viewed as an “exercise” in thought, the chief task of which is to dig under the rubble of history and to recover those “pearls” of past experience, with their sedimented and hidden layers of meaning, so as to cull from them a story that can orient the mind in the future.
The figures of secret “pearls” and covered sediments align in part but not in whole: historians could be seen as describing the hidden layers of ruins that we rarely consider beneath our feet. The idea of finding “pearls,” which Benhabib draws from Arendt’s longer citation to Shakespeare’s Tempest offers the key idea of a particular point of significance that then rearranges other semantic layers.
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (The Tempest, act I, scene 2)
Benhabib sees the theorist casting the challenges of history as “rich and strange” stories. One might push this idea further and see the theorist as descending into the depths to inhabit history from the specific place of the dead man, who longer sees naturally, but retains the markers of perception. We might even say that the drowned man offers the right body to connect ourselves to a broken past. Drawing on Heidegger’s terminology, Benhabib writes:
If Dasein is in time, narrative is the modality through which time is experienced. Even when the thread of tradition is broken, even when the past is no longer authoritative simply because it has been, it lives within us and we cannot avoid placing ourselves in relation to it. The narrative uniting past and present defines who we are at any point. Narrative then, or, in Arendt’s word, storytelling, is a fundamental human activity. There is then a continuum between the attempt of the theorist to understand the past and the need of the acting person to interpret the past as part of a coherent and continuing life story.
Notice that Benhabib sees it as a necessity that we place ourselves in relation to tradition. The distinctive mark of Arendt’s storytelling is that it is not purely imaginative in the sense that “anything goes.” Instead, it establishes a creative relation to the past.
In the 2004 Tanner lectures, Benhabib argues for human rights based on intersubjective cosmopolitanism rather than a metaphysical universalism. The work on narrative in this earlier article raises the question of the role that narrative plays in creating such a cosmopolitanism. Indeed, in the continuing demand to tell a “coherent” story, perhaps we can see the emergence of an international narrative that does not rely so much on the stability of intersubjectivity as one continually open to the future in action.