Month: March 2016

Michael Naas’s Recent Talk at MUN

We recorded Michael’s talk, which is available as an .mp3 here. Since apparently, there’s oddball swipes about how philosophy is to be done, today and every day, Michael’s talk to a packed room shows what I tried to learn from him as his student at DePaul: he provides a wide-ranging discussion of Plato’s notions of life (depicting three categories: “bare life,” political or communal life, and “real life”) that is part of a larger project of his on Plato’s Statesman. This obviously will impact an entire tradition of Platonism after him and could be used, as we discussed afterward, to push back against such uses of the “form of life” in such figures as Agamben. It was a tour de force, where one could pick up certain influences, such as Derrida, but one which left our classics people quite thrilled with the care and erudition.

Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

[I have been posting my lectures on Arendt. Further links to discussions of Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition can be found here]

Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (selections)

30 March 2016


After living some ten years under the assumed name of Ricardo Klement, Adolf Eichmann, a former high official in the German army, was aducted by the Israeli Mossad, which transported him in May 1960 to Israel to face charges of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The next year, after an international controversy set off by the abduction that rekindled the memories of atrocities in Europe some believed best forgotten, Eichmann faced a prosecution depicting him as the anti-Semitic mastermind of the final solution. Four months of testimony, hundreds of witnesses, and thousands of pages of documentary evidence, including transcripts of Eichmann’s interrogations by Israeli officials, provided the world with stark details about Eichmann and his role in the Final Solution. Eichmann’s defense was meager—Eichmann would claim that he was simply following orders, a defense that had been tried and had failed at Nuremburg—and the result of the trial seemed pre-determined from the moment of his abduction. Eichmann would hang for his responsibility in the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews.

Hannah Arendt’s well-known Eichmann in Jerusalem offers a philosophically cogent account of judgment and ethical decision-making that we would do well to heed. Eichmann in Jerusalem, originally a series of press accounts for New Yorker magazine, deserves consideration alongside the Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, and other classic ethics texts. Nevertheless, Arendt’s work is not uncontroversial: there are serious questions to be raised about both her depiction of Eichmann and her conclusions about “the banality of evil.” Nevertheless, her account of ethics, which, with its depiction of ethical duties and its case study of Eichmann’s character does not fit squarely within either a virtue or deontological ethics, is a warning to readers who would conflate morality with state laws and their duties with the needs of superiors.

Arendt’s work is not, though, a traditional work of ethics. Eichmann in Jerusalem is a long study in character—the character of a man Arendt fears is exceptional in his display of symptoms common to “modern bureaucratic man.” Conformist to his core, this “modern bureaucratic man” is unable to see beyond the needs and dictates of his career and is ineluctably unimaginative in his consideration of life’s deep ethical and political questions. As Michael Marrus puts it, “Eichmann was the quintessential example of the totalitarian bureaucrat—unable to speak except in officialese [Amtssprache], unable to think outside the framework of his bureaucratic function, unable to contemplate wider issues of right and wrong or a transcendant morality.” In short, he was ignorant “of everything that was not directly, technically, and bureaucratically connected with his job (EJ, 54).

Arendt argues that in modernity, human beings are exceptionally a-political, viewing their role in the life of their nation and communities as mere cogs in a power structure for which they bear not even the slightest responsibility. Within this structure, the task of thought—defined by Arendt as the ability to see from the vantage point of the other—is displaced onto a system, or worse, a leader-figure that unburdens each man of his individual responsibility. Arendt is scornful of Eichmann’s claim that he was simply following orders for which he had no choice, on threat of violence, to obey. Nevertheless, she recognizes in his defense a larger truth about the nature of responsibility in modernity: judgment and decision-making are always the responsibility of others, and thus, no one.

What is particularly dispiriting in Arendt’s account is how short a time she believes it takes for one’s conscience to be co-opted by a corrupt social system. “It was of great political relevance,” she writes about the outcome of the Eichmann trial, “to know how long it takes an average person to overcome his innate repugnance toward crime” (EJ, 93). Eichmann accomplished this by elevating the laws of Hitler to the status of a perverse Kantian categorical imperative. For Kant, the categorical imperative, from which it follows that one’s maxims for action are such that they can be made into a self-consistent and universal law of nature, is the self-legislated duty of each free being using its practical reason. One’s maxims for action were to be aligned with this internal law, even if, as if often enough the case, it called for an action opposed to one’s inclinations. Arendt does not, in strict Kantian fashion, argue that Eichmann, because of his inclinations, elevated his hypothetical imperatives relating to his job security over the duties of the categorical imperative. Rather Eichmann, Arendt writes, viewed his moral responsibility to be that he should act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew of his actions, would approve of them (136).

What is often missed in Arendt’s analysis is the way in which Eichmann still retains a measure of Kantian freedom to self-legislate. “In his household use [of Kant’s categorial imperative], all that is left of Kant’s spirit is the demand that a man do more than obey the law, that he go beyond the mere call of obedience and identify his own will with the principle behind the law … [here] the will of the Führer” (136-7). That Eichmann did not allow, as he admitted, any exceptions to this law, that he acted freely against his “inclination,” is proof, Eichmann argued, that he was merely doing what he took to be his duty.

But, whatever the perversity of his modes of thinking, Eichmann never lost the capacity to judge, to say what was and was not in accord with duty (even if his notion of the latter was tragically skewed). It is this point that needs to be underscored. Critics of Arendt too often highlight her strong account of the rampant conformism of modern society and the crushing oblivion of Nazi totalitarianism to suggest that she believed that Eichmann beared no responsibility for his crimes, that the usurpation of his practical reason by Hitler’s edicts was inevitable given the time and place in which he lived.[7]

  Arendt is certainly interested in Eichmann’s “mechanism” and notes that relatively few “still knew right from wrong” under the Nazi regime, or were prepared at least to act upon the innate pity that humans feel in the face of suffering (EJ, 104, 106). Eichmann, she writes, considered himself to be a mere civil servant, and in many ways he was, as he said, “a law abiding citizen” (24). He was not stupid, but he was thoughtless. He could speak in nothing but clichés, in the officialese and euphemistic language the Nazi apparatus used in the commission of its horrors. What for the Jews, Arendt notes, was “quite literally the end of the world,” was for Eichmann “a job with daily routine and its ups and downs” (153). There was a “remarkable monotony” to Eichmann’s job, given what was at stake, but this monotony—the job security and occasional promotions—provided Eichmann with his self-described Arbeitsfreude, a certain contentment and satisfaction with his work. And it is notable, as Arendt points out, that Eichmann’s faulty memory, even at the trial in 1961, could recall only those events during the Nazi period that directly affected his career: promotions and changes in responsibilities. The evil of Eichmann, Arendt argues, was his extreme careerism, which kept him focused on the monstrous and “routine” business of the Holocaust that rendered the lives of millions subservient to the utility of his prospects in the Nazi hierarchy (82). Eichmann’s evil, according to Arendt, lies not in some Augustinian stain upon his soul, but rather in his so-called normality, his exceptional attention to being nothing other than normal within even the most extreme circumstances. The judges in the case, Arendt writes, “were too good, and perhaps also too conscious of the very foundations of their profession, to admit that an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble minded nor indoctrinated, nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong… Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was ‘no exception within the Nazi regime’” (26).

Eichmann in Jerusalem, whatever its faults as history or character study, offers an essential rethinking of morality and evil in the contemporary age. Arendt was struck at the trial, she said, “by a manifest shallowness in the doer [Eichmann] that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer … was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.”[8] Arendt, who had written her doctoral dissertation on Augustine, knew that this formulation ran against an entire current of Western considerations of evil. Though she doesn’t find Eichmann to be monstrous, her depiction of his character is just as chilling:

[W]hen I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been father from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. (287)

In other words, Eichmann’s evil manifested itself in very particular ways, one that does mesh with the thorough-going ruthlessness and pathology of a Iago or Macbeth. Arendt notes, for example, that Eichmann’s wish for personal advancement would not be exercised in any “criminal” way: “he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing” (287). This is the great ethical problem of modernity, Arendt claims: “That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in men—that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem” (288). And it is this very banality that needs to be thought, given the genocidaires of Rwanda and elsewhere in the past forty years, who have treated their gruesome task as but another nine-to-five job.[9] The evil witnessed in the past century has not always manifested itself through social pathology, as Arendt recognizes in Eichmann in Jerusalem, but through its opposite: men and women conforming rigidly to social and political codes even as those codes are turned into the tools of genocide. Like Eichmann, the genocidaires of modernity are all too often law abiding citizens.

Arendt claims Eichmann is a symptom of a wider problem in modernity that needs to be thought, the way in which one’s normal aversion to pity can be occluded through the mediation of new technologies and bureaucratic language rules. Arendt worries that past is prologue in the Eichmann case, that “it is quite conceivable that in the automated economy of a not-too-distant future, men may be tempted to exterminate all those whose intelligence quotient is below a certain level” (289); what worries Arendt, then, is the continued privileging of the technical reasoning of the bureaucrat over the thinking and judging of practical reason.  

But despite the very banality of Eichmann, Arendt does not claim that he was without responsibility. “The moment you come to the individual person,” Arendt later argued, “the question to be raised is no longer, how did this system function, but why did the defendant become a functionary in this organization?” To explain Eichmann’s behavior is not to excuse him ethically or judicially. Let me quote from Arendt at length on this point:

We heard the protestations of the defense [at the trial] that Eichmann was after all only a “tiny cog” in the machinery of the Third Reich. … If the defendant excuses himself on the ground that he acted not as a man but as a mere functionary whose functions could just as easily have been carried out by anyone else, it is as if a criminal pointed to the statistics on crime—which set forth that so-and-so many crimes per day are committed in such-and-such a place—and declared that he only did what was statistically expected, that it was mere accident that he did it and not somebody else, since after all somebody had to do it. … [We have grown used] to explaining away the responsibility of the doer for his deed in terms of this or that kind of determinism. … No judicial procedure would be possible on the basis of them. (289-90)

Thus, if it is true that “those few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really only by their own judgments, and … did so freely,” the reverse is also true: Eichmann, even against a backdrop where the law and general consensus of his society was murderous, was left to his “own judgment,” the kind of judgment that needs to valorized even in an era Arendt sees has reacted coldly to the traditional idea of judging others (295-6). This kind of “free judgment,” a refusal to conflate one’s ethics with the laws of state, is especially necessary in the contemporary era in which modern capitalist enterprises operate.

Why does this book provide for such controversy? Corey Robin, in a recent assessment, notes:

The charges against Arendt were many: She blamed the victims; she ignored the trap the Jews were in; “she saw symmetry,” in the words of [one scholar], “between the Nazis and their victims where there was none.” According to [another], “Arendt made it seem as though it was the Jews themselves, rather than their Nazi persecutors, who were responsible for their own destruction.” None of this is true, but neither is Arendt’s account of Jewish cooperation beyond reproach. She did fail to confront the fact that, with or without the cooperation of the Jewish Councils, the Jews were slaughtered—often, as historian Yehuda Bauer observed in Rethinking the Holocaust (2000), with greater dispatch when there was no cooperation or leadership. In the wake of the Nazis’ invasion of the Soviet Union, for example, the Einsatzgruppen, German police battalions, and local death squads killed Jews without assistance from Jewish leaders.

This brings us back to where we began with Arendt, notably a certain tone that infuriates many of her readers, fueling their firey wrath. Here Robin discusses the reaction against Arendt:

In her effort to restore some room for maneuver, some sense of responsibility, to the Nazi edifice, Arendt ranged widely—sometimes clumsily, sometimes cruelly—into the darkest spaces of its cornered victims. But if she overstated her case regarding Jewish cooperation—“these people had still a certain, limited freedom of decision and action,” as she wrote in a famous letter to Gershom Scholem, which was true of some leaders, not others, in some places, but not all—it’s important to remember that her most informed critics have also insisted that Jewish leaders did not react like automatons; they acted in a variety of ways, depending on context and circumstance, and those differences sometimes made a difference. While Arendt may have misconstrued the empirics of collaboration and resistance, what she was calling attention to was not the failure of all Jews to resist, but the failure of Jewish leaders to refuse the role that had been thrust upon them. And her judgment of that failure—from top to bottom, the micro-politics of refusal and collaboration—remains salient.

But what may get lost in all of this is that Arendt was seeking to identify the unprecedented that Eichmann the man (and his legend) represented: the atomized mass man who speaks wholly in cliches provides the army of bureaucrats unflinchingly creating the worst of evils; that this evil was unprecedented because it was targeted not at this or that community, but at humanity–that is, its specific mark as a plurality, since it is men, not a man, who inhabit the earth, as she repeatedly writes; and that, with the loss of authority in the modern age, we are forced to think without banisters, without the traditional guideposts that had aided human beings so often in the past. Arendt’s attunement to the unprecedented lines the book:

[E]very act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past . . . that the unprecedented, once it has appeared, may become a precedent for the future, that all trials touching upon ‘crimes against humanity’ must be judged according to a standard that is today still an ‘ideal.’ (273)

For Arendt, politics and action provide the ability for the new to appear but we must be responsible for standing against those who would take certain unprecedented events, such as Nazism, as a precedent for the future. Arendt argued, again, that a new crime–against humanity–appeared, all while “the trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal” (276). They were the accountants who aid dictators, bankers who hide their millions, oil company functionaries going along with an industry choking our planet: normal taxpayers evading responsibility and judgement precisely because of their supposed normality: violence comes in more than just the shape of a knife or a gun. Let’s follow Arendt where she describes the crimes against humanity:

Legalized discrimination had been practiced by all Balkan countries, and expulsion on a mass scale had occurred after many revolutions. It was when the Nazi regime declared that the German people not only were unwilling to have any Jews in Germany but wished to make the entire Jewish people disappear from the face of the earth that the new crime, the crime against humanity— in the sense of a crime “against the human status,” or against the very nature of mankind— appeared. Expulsion and genocide, though both are international offenses, must remain distinct; the former is an offense against fellow-nations, whereas the latter is an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the “human status” without which the very words “mankind” or “humanity” would be devoid of meaning. Had the court in Jerusalem understood that there were distinctions between discrimination, expulsion, and genocide, it would immediately have become clear that the supreme crime it was confronted with, the physical extermination of the Jewish people, was a crime against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people, and that only the choice of victims, not the nature of the crime, could be derived from the long history of Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism. (268-9)

This brings us to the last lines of her Epilogue, where she takes up Eichmann’s part in this whole tale and where she comes out in support of his death penalty, while speaking as if in the words of the trial’s judges [this is long, but I will pause to comment on notable moments here]:

“You admitted that the crime committed against the Jewish people during the war was the greatest crime in recorded history, and you admitted your role in it. But you said you had never acted from base motives, that you had never had any inclination to kill anybody, that you had never hated Jews, and still that you
could not have acted otherwise and that you did not feel guilty. We find this difficult, though not altogether impossible, to believe; there is some, though not very much, evidence against you in this matter of motivation and conscience that could be proved beyond reasonable doubt. You also said that your role in the Final Solution was an accident and that almost anybody could have taken your place, so that potentially almost all Germans are equally guilty. What you meant to say was that where all, or almost all, are guilty, nobody is. …[N]o matter through what accidents of exterior or interior circumstances you were pushed onto the road of becoming a criminal, there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done. We are concerned here only
with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life and of your motives or with the criminal potentialities of those around you. You told your story in terms of a hard-luck story, and, knowing the circumstances, we are, up to a point, willing to grant you that under more favorable circumstances it is highly unlikely that you would ever have come before us or before any other criminal court. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations— as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world— we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”

We have spoken frequently about Arendtian notions of agency, responsibility, and ultimately judgment. We can see the verdict in search of something other than a vague set of principles (you don’t want to share the earth with us; we then don’t with you) to defend the imposition of the penalty of death. This view of the political, as giving the state a monopoly over death, should have one criticized by a thinker so critical of sovereignty and political violence elsewhere. Nevertheless she remains incisive in trying to think evil not from the side of barely secularized theodicy, but by trying to think what we ought to do in light of the judgments history has put upon us. In many political philosophy courses, the task is to tease out the regimes and ideas of the past, but here we will end with Arendt’s reminder that to think the political is to think the unprecedented and new–and the absolute frailty of all that appears. In this way, her work is continual witnesses of the event and the possible event of the new that another future beyond the banal, bureaucratized spaces of today may arrive. Such will take, on her account, a certain thinking of solidarity, of being-together, and giving oneself over to the unpredictability of action itself, which is the only condition of possibility for another future worthy of the name. Evil, in her terminology, is the attempt to render the human and the world around her entirely predictable or to remove any unpredictable difference from the earth entirely. Quite predictably, even when she’s writing about the unprecedented, this is the invariable core of her thought.


Helen A. Fielding reviews new collection on Love and Continental Philosophy

In NDPR here. Here’s her conclusion:

This collection opens up an overdue discussion of the intersections of love and thinking within the continental tradition. Some of the observations were ones I anticipated; others were surprising. My only real criticism is that there is no mention of the work of Luce Irigaray, a contemporary continental philosopher for whom love is at the center of her work. Nonetheless, it is easy to fault a work for what it has not done. In the end it must be judged by what it has accomplished, and that by all measures is much.

Source: Thinking about Love: Essays in Contemporary Continental Philosophy // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame

Michael Naas at MUN the next couple of days

Several events coming up:

1. We are hosting Michael for a reception at the Underbelly at 9pm. I have reserved 10 spots but we can colonize more if need be. If you want food, come early since the kitchen closes at 10pm tonight. I would hope all the grad students can make it.
2. A morning hike tomorrow guided by Shannon Hoff. If anyone wishes to come, let her or me know.
3. There is his talk tomorrow:

Michael Naas, DePaul University (Chicago)
“Plato and the Invention of Life”
SN2098, 4:30pm-6:00pm, Tuesday March 29
Professor Naas is a leading scholar and translator, along with Pascale-Anne Brault, of Jacques Derrida. His first book took up the themes of Platonic philosophy as a turning against the Homeric tradition, and his many books since have famously challenged central tenets of Platonism. Naas has always written extensively on Plato and he returns to these themes with this talk on Plato’s conceptions of life.
4. There will be dinner afterward at the Merchant Tavern at 6:30. I got seating for 8. My guess is that we can wrap up dinner by 8 and take Michael either to the underbelly or over to O’Reilly’s or such to hear local music. Ideas would be helpful.
Let’s make this a great visit for Michael.

Geoff Bennington on the new edition of Of Grammatology

Bennington’s essay sadly matched my own feelings when I received the book a couple of weeks ago: I checked the places that were notorious for mistranslation and they were still there again, though Bennington has gone beyond the call of duty to look at the intro and Spivak’s new afterward as well as the translation of the first chapter and more. What to do? It’s obvious that students will be stuck with this translation and its pagination, even as I want to take my return and allow me better purchases. Bennington’s essay has a great title that gives a nice kick when you get the punchline. This is really too bad and I trust Bennington as a great translator of Derrida. The essay is also good on why this translation can be misleading in terms of recent realisms–a real benefit. Also, it’s notable that the Derrida Seminars Translation Project (DSTP) team, which includes Bennington, Peggy Kamuf, Elizabeth Rottenberg, Michael Naas, Pascale-Anne Brault, and David Wills and manages the translation of Derrida’s previously unpublished courses and seminars, has written to Johns Hopkins University Press to request that this new edition of the Grammatology be withdrawn. These are not bomb throwers and Johns Hopkins has at least once before “embarrassed us” with an edition it claimed was “revised” in 1997. And also, since I was in the course where Michael Naas introduced his and Brault’s translation of Voyous (Rogues), I find Spivak’s need to mis-un?-translate the original quotes from that text in the afterword somewhat telling. No doubt, we often see translation wars with each new Heidegger, Foucault, Levinas, or other text and so on: a lot of it is so much spitting at people doing difficult, if not impossible work on Derrida’s and Bennington’s own terms. But Bennington leaves the reader who ordered the text–I would give more import to Butler’s essay than he–feeling as she should: having a new text with different pagination that can’t or shouldn’t stand as the standard.

Source: Embarrassing Ourselves – The Los Angeles Review of Books

Arendt’s On Revolution

Introduction, Chapter 1: “The Meaning of Revolution”

[I have been posting my lectures on Arendt. Further links to discussions of Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition can be found here]

21 March 2016

The notion of revolution is in déchéance, not by desuetude or disuse in name, but by, perhaps, its usurpation by anything but revolutionary politics and political economy: tech companies declare their latest gadgets to be revolutionary; Bernie Sanders can declare his simple election by voting to be a revolution in the making; and t-shirts, caps, and posters of past revolutionaries, such as Che Guevera, are sold alongside those declaring the world’s greatest dad or who is indeed with stupid. Arendt’s On Revolution arrives today in many ways as a mislaid letter from a time when the use of the word “revolution” had true bite, when the status quo the world over was under threat, and when one could write, without irony, given France’s own decades’ long decline, that all revolutionary efforts look to 1789 and other moments in French history as their guide. Written between 1959 and 1962, On Revolution (1963) is Arendt’s fourth book and continues her foray into the meaning of modernity, the changes in politics that marked its rise, and her attempt to account for the unprecedented, namely a notion of “revolution” that had hitherto been unknown in the world. In those years, revolutions across Africa, Latin America, and Asia were upending the previous colonial order and the Cold War was fought through the hot wars armed and funded on both sides of these revolutions, and one could write, as Arendt does in these pages, that previous notions of war were falling to this revolutionary spirit, that is, revolutions were replacing wars as the modus operandi of violence for the political realm. In many ways, the 1960s would bare this out: prominent texts of the period included Malcolm X writing in favor of the gun over the ballot in the U.S. and Sartre writing the same year in Paris that to kill a colonizer was to kill two birds with one stone (the colonized in the one doing violence and the colonizer, all in one go), among many others, which stoked massive fear on the right of revolutions in the developed world, especially as resistance to the Vietnam War and May ‘68 in Paris, among so many other events, came to pass.

But there is a reason why old American hippies–those with balding hairlines and the long pony tails–and French ex-’68ers write with such nostalgia for this period: it was like a time when true revolutions in the world capitalist order seemed most possible, but which turned out to be the last quivering shakes, the death throes, of a dying patient. Many of the ‘68 leaders in France went right and denied their younger selves as naive in believing they could bring about the impossible, and law and order politics in the U.S. literally locked up many revolutionaries as Nixon locked in landslide electoral wins. By the ‘80s, aging hippies would be another era’s stock brokers and neoliberal apologists and as they grew older, would push an austerity politics that protects the gains of the upper class at the grave cost of needed services for those rendered indigent by globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs across the West. In this climate, the word revolution would fall into such dis- and over-use that Apple could use the term for its ad campaigns, even as the thing itself, the very res publica or public thing that was revolutionary practice faded from view. Instead we have something like a playacting of revolt and revolution–Trump rallies turning violent against the marginalized, petty criminals overtaking states in the developing world to make personal financial gains, Obama running on “change we can believe in” and with posters positing revolutionary change from one of our most technocratic politicians–such that many can be forgiven for believing that history has indeed ended, that all is said and done for what the political can mean, and all we are to do is count out the profits and losses. We have, perhaps, moved past the era of war, as Arendt claimed, and also the era of “revolutionary spirit” that Arendt was herself diagnosing. Asymmetric military strength on the side of Western powers has meant that hell fire, as in the Bible, rains down from above, all without formal declarations of war, but certainly without even the facade that one is stoking liberatory movements to form new regimes. (Even the war in Iraq, which was for liberation, did not have the cover of aiding indigenous forces.) On the other side, terrorism has always in one way or another been a tool of those facing upward odds, but the seeming implacability of Western dominance has meant a mutation in its use, perhaps similar to the changeover from tyranny to totalitarianism marked by Arendt (or at least, this would be one manner of trying to think with and extend Arendt): just as totalitarianism used violence not as a means, as did tyrants, but as the end of the political, so too, flailing movements nihilistically kill in marketplaces and mosques, public squares and private homes, for no other end than that violence itself, which itself is often an answer to flailing imperium’s killing n’importe qui and declaring all of an age group in a region terrorists–all above and outside the law. Perhaps one day, a day that will begin like any other, an event will come that means nothing can ever be the same again, which would be the mark of a future worthy of the name instead of the profound mediocrity of neoliberal politics, and thus be a day that never quite ends. That, at least, was always the hope of what Arendt discusses here as the “revolutionary spirit.”

Arendt begins in the introduction describing why she thinks “war” has largely come to an end. Mostly she argues that with the rise of nuclear and other mass weaponry, war itself is too cataclysmic to consider: when the whole of the Earth is at stake, war becomes too alarming to countenance. What has replaced violence in the political are revolutions, which also allow third parties, such as the Soviets and the U.S., to fight proxy wars. Arendt, as always, wants to make a distinction between terms: warn is not revolution and revolutions are not coups d’état. The latter merely change the face of the government; the former brings about the unexpected, the new. This, she thinks, is novel: revolution, which comes from late fourteenth century, originally referred to the movement of celestial bodies, from the late Latin revolutio, meaning to “revolt,” to “roll back,” as in the when the Earth does a full revolution around the sun. Clearly, at some point the very term would revolt against itself such that one could think not just a revolt and a new thinking in science, but in the political as well. As Arendt notes, this is what Robespierre means during the French Revolution when he writes, “Tout a changé dans l’ordre physique; et tout doit changer l’ordre moral et politique” (OR, 36) (“Everything has changed in the physical order; and everything should change in the political and moral order”). She writes:

It was only in the course of the eighteenth-century revolutions that men began to to be aware that a new beginning could be a political phenomenon (my emphasis), that it could be the result of what men had done and what they could consciously set out to do. (OR, 37)

This emphasis on the new is different because political philosophy since Aristotle and Plato had always found a certain natural movement from one kind of politics to another and back again (oligarchy to democracy to monarchy and so on) and these paradigms were not to be replaced. But with the rise of the nation-state, with the emphasis on the new, the unprecedented can occur not just within politics–where actors act–but to politics: revolutions come first, later we have totalitarianism, and so on. Arendt’s claims are several in these pages, and we will spend some time today looking at specific passages:

  1. Liberty is not freedom: liberation, Arendt argues, is sought wherever revolutions happen. But freedom is always spatial and political, not social. As such if liberation happens without freedom, then the revolution may fall into Terror. She thinks the American Revolution avoided this:

For the acts and deeds which liberation demanded from [the founders] threw them into the public business, where intentionally or more often unexpectedly, they began to constitute that space of appearances where freedom can unfold its charms and become a visible, tangible reality. (OR, 23)

2. Freedom in modernity is often depicted as negative, that is, as what I can do where the law does not refuse me. But Arendt’s claim is that the Greeks had a conception of freedom that finds its real world instances here and there throughout history. This would be the notion of “no-rule,” which had the Greeks in favor not of the rule of the many, but an isonomy (20) whereby an artificial space, the polis, would create an equality since human beings were not by nature (phusei) equal, or free for that matter (OR, 21). She writes, “The point of Herodotus’s equation of freedom with no-rule was that the ruler himself was not free; by assuming rule over others, he had deprived himself of those peers in whose company he could have been free” (OR, 21). We would have to oppose this to another understanding of freedom: “it has become almost axiomatic even in political theory to understand by political freedom not a political phenomenon, but on the contrary, the more or less free range of non-political activities which a given body politic will permit and guarantee to those who constitute it” (OR, 20)

3. Arendt, then, is going to privilege the revolution that she believed ended up creating spaces of freedom in the New England townships, namely the American revolution. She thus separates political revolution (the American) from a social revolution (the French) and wants to diagnose why one led to the terror and the other did not. In a word, the French revolution brought the needs of the home, the necessities for food and so on, into the political, and thus made politics an outgrowth of this necessary realm, and Arendt despairs that it is the French revolution that has become the model for all others, not the American. Eventually, she will argue, this type of social necessity will overtake the political and this very scarcity will be seen as the motor of history. In sum, while the Americans, she argues, faced abundance, the scarcity faced by the French led into 19th-century considerations of the political and history as outgrowths of necessary laws following from this scarcity. Her target, of course, is Marxist historical materialism and Arendt is at pains to critique any view of history that refuses responsibility and the free acts of those in the political, which she argues historical determinism amounts to. She also argues that this is the beginning of thinking politics in terms of spectacle, since the actors themselves are unaware–though the historian is–of how they are in fact puppets of larger forces. It is the historian who sees the truth of politics and the spectator always knows more than the political actor; thus we get a double reduction or disrespect of politics: the historian, always knowing true history, must always see politicians as naive and always compromised, or indeed, as hypocrites. Second since the spectacle is what matters, how far are we from replacing politics with social spectacle? Politics is not about action; it is about 30 second ads and staged events. Here’s it’s worth quoting Arendt:

What the men of the Russian Revolution had learned from the French Revolution – and this learning constituted almost their entire preparation – was history and not action. They had acquired the skill to play whatever part the great drama of history was going to assign them, and if no other role was available but that of the villain, they were more than willing to accept their part rather than remain outside the play. There is some grandiose ludicrousness in the spectacle of these men – who had dared to defy all powers that be and to challenge all authorities on earth, whose courage was beyond the shadow of a doubt – submitting, often from one day to the other, humbly and without so much as a cry of outrage, to the call of historical necessity, no matter how foolish and incongruous the outward appearance of this necessity must have appeared to them. (OR, 48)

4) Thus, as we will see, the French revolution would bring into the political non-political emotions such as pity and compassion, which Arendt derides as enframing a violent power of one over the other. Here Arendt will be clear: she will want to be against those who see in politics always a violent origin. Where there is violence, Arendt claims, there can be no politics, no persuasion, no acts that are not driven by necessity. A revolution is by necessity violent and as such we seem to have this at the heart of modern politics. And this violence is compounded when we think the political can answer to the needs of the home. This will be the key theme of this book.

(5) Finally, Arendt offers something of a model for how she does history. She writes:

One way to date the actual birth of such general historical phenomena as revolutions – or for that matter nation-states or imperialism or totalitarian rule and the like – is, of course, to find out when the word which from then on remains attached to the phenomenon “appear” for the first time. Obviously, each new appearance among men stands in need of a new word, whether a new word is coined to cover the new experience or an old word is used and given an entirely new meaning. This is doubly true for the political sphere of life, where speech rules supreme. (OR, 25)

This gives us quite a bit to discuss today, so let’s break off here. But crucial is thinking the relation between violence and politics, since clearly politics would seem, even on Arendt’s account, to require law creating violence (the revolution) and law-continuing violence (the policing of the political). This will be our own theme the next two weeks.