Tagged: Hannah Arendt

Heart full of scroll

Some people say Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism doesn’t apply to Trump. Maybe not. But Trump is comparable to other modern dictators (i.e., Erdogan, Putin, Duterte, etc.). Mussolini is an obvious model for Trump.

As Jimmy Breslin once described Rudy Giuliani: “A small man in search of a balcony.”

When the economic and cultural conditions underpinning masculine domination decay, one winds up with Trump.

Reading and writing occur in a place of silence, of solitude. What refuses to be silent is the mass media, which profits from giving a platform to extremist politics.

Calvin’s doctrine of predestination demonstrated more theological courage than Luther, whose sola fide is merely a continuation of the Church’s “magical means of salvation” by other means (as per Weber).

Luther is a hero only if one skips over the antisemitism.

Universal and particular


Apropos Monique Wittig (d. January 3, 2003), my comments on a paper by Linda Zerilli, “A New Grammar of Difference: Monique Wittig’s Revolutionary Poetics.”

The discursive resources available for theorizing the relationship of the paired concepts of the universal and the particular, elaborated variously as the relation of dominant identities to forms of difference, of dominant to subordinate cultures, and of generalized principles to concrete forms of life, have grown rich in the wake of a wave of postfoundationalist projects.  Many political and cultural theorists now almost reflexively counter any claim to a collective identity, a general interest or universal subject with the question: “In the name of what project of power?”  At stake in the ongoing disputes centering on the necessity for, and impossibility of, the universal is the question of whether our preferred vision of normatively binding social and political relations can be construed as a purely normative or epistemological matter, or as always being bound up in relations of force (symbolic or physical, cognitive or empirical).  Of particular interest is the way in which the relation of the universal and the particular is construed and the analytical and prescriptive strategies that are employed to render this relation less prone to manifestations of force.

I interpret Linda Zerilli’s paper as having much to say about an alternative vision of a postfoundationalist conception of politics which does not risk becoming a new instance of social closure. She begins with several startling questions: “How does one start from zero? How does a new world begin?”. How does one imagine an event “that would not be what Kant called ‘the continuation of a preceding series [?]’”. Based on a close reading of Hannah Arendt and Monique Wittig, Zerilli attempts to move beyond the discourse of “‘resignification’ or ‘recitation’ of gender norms” to define a type of agency that overcomes what Arendt termed “the problem of the new.” This is the problem of founding a new way of experiencing freedom that is not somehow premised on a preceding political epoch (a golden age or era of domination) or that does not become a new foundation. Again, quoting Zerilli: “The question of creatio ex nihilo…concerns not the imaginative power of the artist to begin anew but the political space of freedom and founding that [Wittig’s] texts at once make visible and celebrate”. Zerilli’s pairing of Arendt and Wittig shows more than the commonality in their thinking; it is intended to highlight the political register of Wittig’s “fictional text” Les Guérillères.

I’ll discuss two aspects of Zerilli’s argument. The first is its critique of the conception of freedom as the product of consciousness and cognition. She draws on Arendt’s distinction between the idea of freedom as the property of the individual will and the idea of freedom as the political practice of doing and acting. Quoting Arendt, Zerilli writes “Unmoored from its origins in the political sphere of doing and acting, modern freedom ‘ceased to be virtuosity…and became sovereignty, the ideal of a free will, independent of others and eventually prevailing against them’”. Zerilli finds Arendt’s assertion that “If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce” echoed by Wittig, who renounces sovereign subjectivity in the form of normative heterosexuality. Hence Wittig’s text attempts to break with the category of sex not merely by deconstructing it, but by “re-starting time,” as Zerilli puts it. Zerilli draws out the limits of a deconstructive or skeptical response to the naturalization of gender/sex categories: “What persists once sex difference as an object of knowledge is destabilized, however, is sexual difference as a question of meaning, a question we do not stop thinking about once we know that sex difference is a contingent social and historical construct. It is in this space of meaning…the space of politics, action, and judgement – that sexual difference emerges for feminism as a question of freedom understood in terms of the power of spontaneous beginning”. Based on this reading of Wittig, we see that the foundation of normative heterosexuality cannot be thought away by an act of sovereign subjectivity. Zerilli reads Wittig’s statement that, “‘[T]he category of sex is a totalitarian one’” as having the following implications: (1) “sex as truth and necessity is at odds with freedom”; (2) however, “to counter the totalitarian category of sex with counter-truths” which as truth would function in a totalitarian manner, “is also at odds with freedom.” Hence, Zerilli identifies the import of Wittig’s “revolutionary poetics”: they illustrate the “free act that eschews truth in the search of meaning, a new grammar of difference”. This new grammar of difference stands against the category of difference construed as a claim to truth.

The second aspect of Zerilli’s argument I’ll discuss is its critique of a conception of freedom tied to form, the universal treated as a pre-political foundation. In the case of the form of heterosexual normativity, she argues that it is “all but impossible to locate a time when the two sexes did not exist”. For Wittig, the concept of sex difference, which is the product of what she calls the “straight mind,” and the division between women and men, are presented as form: “universality, necessity, and causality…”. The need to surmount form is fulfilled, according to Zerilli, in Wittig’s effort to “re-animate time”; that is, the “re-animation of the contingent”. Again, quoting Zerilli: “The new form or universal that Wittig would found, however, is actually an ongoing event: spontaneous acts which have no cause, no origin, and which do not in turn become a cause of whatever follows them. Les Guérillères narrates the process of universalization as a mode of action, reversal (renversement), which reactivates the contingent…”. Such reversal is not simply a “literary strategy,” it is a “political practice” that “creates the time-space of freedom: it founds (and re-founds) not Rome anew but a new Rome”. Hence, it is “in the space of difference between the ‘no-more’ and the ‘not-yet’” that the “genuine problem of beginning” emerges: ”the abyss of freedom”.

In Les Guérillères, Wittig’s warriors accomplish the re-animation of the contingent in the following ways. Oriented toward a conception of freedom understood as a “desire not to be dominated”, the warriors “say they have no need of myths or symbols. They say that the time when they started from zero is in the process of being erased from their memories…When they repeat, This order must be destroyed, they say they do not know which order is meant”. For Zerilli, the “return to beginning” is not a return to myth or foundations, it is a “new beginning, an invention, a creation”. Freedom is not tied to “rememoration of the past” but to the “act of spontaneous beginning”.

The warriors are not sovereign subjects acting outside history; they are situated in a political community. Yet the universality of this community is “not one” but many. This is so because the warriors are constantly on the move, telling stories, never resting. Zerilli writes, “Les Guérillères is a motley collection of stories, told about every imaginable event or object and from every imaginable angle. The storytelling is a performance, a form of excellence or virtuosity in Arendt’s sense of free action”. Thus Zerilli concludes, the problem of universality is not resolved by Wittig through the erasure of difference; nor do the warriors form a pre-given unity. Rather, they realize freedom in community as “the power of spontaneous beginning,” a freedom that does not have “recourse to form, the realm beyond appearances”.

I’d like to offer a few critical remarks on Zerilli’s subtle and insightful argument. First, a few critical questions: Wittig’s warriors are virtuosos, they do and act, but does “spontaneous beginning” describe the nature of their action? Is it not still dependent on form? Is the virtuosity of the warriors not still structured? And if their political-aesthetic practice is structured, how might it still admit freedom on the terms described by Arendt (freedom without sovereignty)? Consider, for example, the recurrent return to a new beginning. Narratively, this event lies between the no-more and the not-yet. Consequently, its meaning depends on its narrative framing between these moments. Why does the impossibility of escaping narrative form establish a limit on spontaneous beginning? Because narrative is the discursive form for expressing interaction between the self and others and between the self and itself. Rather than asking, as Zerilli does, how can Wittig “sustain contingency and thereby save freedom,” we might ask how can we enable narrative or symbolic interaction that also sustains contingency?

Moreover, might the insistence on this event, the demand for the perpetual renewal of the new, not itself become equally totalitarian? Freedom might also be construed as the freedom to experience limits positively, as enabling, rather than negatively, as merely constraining. The warriors appear not to value interaction or intersubjectivity as an aspect of their political community and political virtuosity. Each warrior writes her own story but she does not write stories together with others. Such freedom without interaction might be construed as virtuosity within a suspended zone of textuality, of free writing, that bears the mark of the social but which lacks the social’s symbolically mediated connections between subjects. Such freedom would properly be described as an abyss.

Finally, a third way of envisioning freedom is available that does not fall back on a linear depiction of universality, causality and necessity, but which also does not require the circular recurrence of the new found in Wittig’s text. This third way might be termed relational freedom. Such a model of freedom, which can be distilled from the work of theorists like Ernesto Laclau or Pierre Bourdieu, breaks from the notion of the sovereign subject: in this model, the subject’s freedom is defined in relation to others within fields of practical interaction. Additionally, a concept of relational freedom would not require the distinguishing of truth and meaning as realms of heteronomy and autonomy. The allergic reaction to the phenomenal (visible in Arendt’s conception of freedom as virtuosity) would not arise if the truth we derive about the social world is viewed as the contingent outcome of practical interactions rather than as the outcome of the monocausal projections of a sovereign subject or collectivity. If we also view meaning in a relational way, then the meaning of doing, acting, and narrating would not have to be canceled in acts of willful forgetting such as those carried out by Wittig’s warriors. Meaning and truth, cultural creation and memory can then be viewed as co-constitutive moments in the construction of temporally binding, yet politically contingent, symbolic relations between subjects. In other words, another way to realize freedom without sovereignty is to recognize the practical limits on the subject, not in the form of a naturalization of the necessity of limits but rather as a means to enabling the subject’s openness to the perpetual discovery of difference.

Arendt at 108

Hannah Arendt published an essay in 1959 about the controversy surrounding the effort to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. In this essay, Arendt criticized this effort, affirmed William Faulkner’s assessment that “enforced integration is no better than enforced segregation,” and argued that the “social custom of segregation” was not “unconstitutional” (Arendt 2003: 202). According to Arendt, only when this custom was legally enforced should it be considered unconstitutional. In other words, Arendt was opposed to enforced segregation – hence she approved civil rights legislation that put de jure segregation out of business – but not voluntary segregation. She was particularly disturbed by the fact that integration began in public schools, which she felt shifted the burden from adults to children, such as the nine black students who endured the brunt of “white” ire in Little Rock. Referring to a photograph of a young woman being shielded from the “mob,” Arendt wrote:

The girl, obviously, was asked to be a hero – that is, something neither her absent father nor the equally absent representatives of the NAACP felt called upon to be. It will be hard for the white youngsters, or at least those among them who outgrow their present brutality, to live down this photograph which exposes so mercilessly their juvenile delinquency. The picture looked to me like a fantastic caricature of progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world? And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards? (Arendt 2003: 203-204).


(Elizabeth Eckford, copyright Bettman/Corbis)

This argument is informed by Arendt’s conceptual and ethical distinction between the political and social spheres of life. Reflecting the model of the Greek polis, which she found to be an exemplary model of the political public sphere (and the vita activa), Arendt argued that the equality that was necessary in political life should not be imposed upon the social sphere. Echoing, perhaps unwittingly, one sentence in the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1897), she wrote:

Segregation is discrimination enforced by law, and desegregation can do no more than abolish the laws enforcing discrimination; it cannot abolish discrimination and force equality upon society, but it can, and indeed must, enforce equality within the body politic. Only there are we all equals. (Arendt 2003: 204).

The object of the [14th] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. (Plessy v. Ferguson 1896, 544).

This opinion is another instance of Arendt’s allergic reaction to what used to be called the social question. In its classical form, the social question referred to the status of the working classes and Jewish citizens (as a religious minority) in the newly forming democratic-constitutional states of Western Europe; more recent forms of the social question pertain to the status of women and racial and ethnic minorities. In her political theory, the social (which Arendt treats as the private matters of the oikos, the household) had no place in the political public sphere (the polis); in other words, political discourse should not concern itself with policies aimed to create conditions of equality in the social sphere (construed as the sphere of private life). The effort to achieve equality in political rights is permissible; the effort to achieve equality in social existence is not. “What equality is to the body politic – its innermost principle – discrimination is to society” (Arendt 2003: 205). Arendt’s intention in “Reflections on Little Rock,” I believe, is to extend an ethical affirmation to “social differences” and, at the same time, to criticize the use of the social differences as a justification for the denial of equal political rights.

Let me note a few things about Arendt’s reflections: first, today we think nothing of asking “children” or the “younger generation” to change the world, namely, they are seen as the basis for a “post-racial” social order. According to one popular narrative of Obama’s election in 2008, racial antipathy is a disposition common to older generations, but not to younger ones. Second, the distinction Arendt makes between the political and social is easier to maintain in theory than in practice. Social inequality has been contested on all fronts (the latest battleground is struggle over the legal recognition of “same-sex marriage,” which is viewed as impacting social equality). Third: one view expressed by Arendt continues to predominate (in a slightly different form) in contemporary social life. Whereas Arendt attributed natural differences among individuals and groups to the realm of the social, and race for her meant visible, physical differences, there is today a vocal consensus that what could be called “natural cultural differences” are self-evident features of society: one instance of natural cultural differences is the racial group. Moreover, what Arendt called the “social custom of segregation” that is based on these self-evident racial groups is as tolerated today as it was in the past.


Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” in Responsibility and Judgment. (Shocken Books, 2003), 193-213.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).