Hannah Arendt’s Origins

Among the first papers I ever wrote in graduate school and certainly among the longest was a paper titled “Hannah Arendt’s Origins.” The title was, of course, a play on words. In the 1950s Hannah Arendt had written a book titled The Origins of Totalitarianism and my paper was an early attempt to understand this book. But—and this is why it was a play on words—my paper also sought to understand Arendt’s interpretive categories and how Arendt deployed these categories across time—from continent to continent and community to community—and space, from the dawn beginnings of humanity down to the defeat of Germany and Japan and the emergence of the United States as the dominant world power.

Origins is not a history text. It is a political scientific or, more narrowly, a political philosophical text. Which is to say, it comes to the material it examines not inviting this material to disclose the categories through which these events might be interpreted, but with its interpretive categories already “to hand” (itself an interpretive category that Arendt learned from her mentor Martin Heidegger). Thus, for example, when Arendt examines the European plunder of Africa, the lessons she takes home from this plunder are ontologically fundamental; which is to say, they are lessons about being (Gk., ontos) and not strictly about either Europe or Africa or Europeans or Africans. It was in Africa, for instance, that Europeans first stumbled upon peoples who, unlike themselves, had not created a built world and who, therefore, were at risk of blending back into that world and becoming only natural. And so it was in Africa that Europeans first stumbled upon a purely “natural” human being who was in all respects no different from animals. From this accident, Europeans learned not only to fear where they might return in the absence of vigilance, but also that they first learned about “natural” man as such, in the absence of a built world. But it was also in Africa that Europeans learned what men can do to one another when these men are threatened with the prospect of mere existence. They learned that they were (or are) not natural men; that being a man is itself unnatural.

This discovery, in turn, brought Europeans to reflect on their own “natural” origins and on the threat of those communities that were so unlike their own, but which bordered on their own. Such were those individuals who—like Africans—were identified not by what they had achieved through action, but merely by who they were naturally, ethnically, for example the Jews.

For Arendt, individuals or communities such as the Jews, whose very identity was biological, could not avoid the fact that they were who they were not because of what they had achieved, but because of their nature, their bios. Yet, at the same time, this very bios, this natural being, was itself dislodged and uprooted from the soil of the European nations where they found themselves, so that their “belonging” could only be achieved through the abstract device of legal citizenship. And this meant that Jews embodied in their very beings both the completely abstract and disembodied—their abstract citizenship—and the purely natural quality associated with their race, their ethnicity.

Only through action—and through effective action in the world—could the Jews then establish their authenticity. But, such action had always and inevitably to be Anti-Semitic since an action of Semitic affirmation could only reinforce their natural self and hence their disembededness from the places and soil where they now found themselves. Their only form of emancipation could be away from who they were ethnically and toward a universal, secular, humanist appreciation both for themselves and for humanity. But how could such an understanding not be perceived as a direct threat to those through whose actions their adopted lands had actually been created, as a threat against the ethne whose built world proved the authenticity of their being?

Here the Jew comes to assume for Arendt both an abstract disembedded form and a mere natural form. But, it is not only the Jew that assumes this binary form. Across the globe and across time, we repeatedly stumble across this same type, shading sometimes toward the abstract—as in the intellectual, the scholar, the scientist, the politician, gypsy, homosexual, the laborer, the writer, the actor—and at other times toward the natural—as in Eastern European, the native American, the aboriginal Australian, the nationalist, the Boor, or, again and again, the African. And at the center, we find that most abstract and most natural being, the Nazi collaborator and the Communist, who, because they fully embody both the abstract and the concrete are also the most common and banal.

Page after page in Hannah Arendt’s Origins we meet an endless stream of individuals and communities whose members display the same binary code. But, we also meet a much smaller, more limited, but also more influential line of individuals (but never communities) whom Arendt could only describe through their political achievements; men and women who, instead of merely reflecting the world about them or concealing themselves sub specie alter, instead of assuming a purely abstract character or a fully embedded character, or some shade of difference in between, act decisively into the world from a place of being and so create something entirely new: here are the political actors, the agents, the heroes, the nobility, the virtuous, the doers whose deeds and monuments constitute the built world that all of us occupy.

It would be fairly easy to accuse Arendt of ethnocentrism and even of Eurocentrism. Many have taken that route. And we can all clearly see why.

And, yet, for me the more interesting question was why Arendt adopted these specific interpretive categories? What was it about Hannah Arendt’s Origins (and Hannah Arendt’s origins) that lent socio-historical validity to these specific categories? Does anyone doubt that the Jews earned their political emancipation from a legal framework that erased the identity not merely of the Jews, but of all social actors, reducing them simply to the abstract character citizen? Does anyone doubt that Europeans themselves were horrified by what they found that they themselves were capable of once they confronted men who, though fully men, were so different from themselves that this difference struck them as a genuine threat to what they had become—that is “civilized”? Does anyone doubt that the binary form that Hannah Arendt imprinted on the surface of contemporary social ontology was a form that she actually in fact found there; so that, for example, the accusations she hurls in the direction of scholars and intellectuals (who perform no deeds) is also a social characteristic displayed by and reproduced among such individuals by the kind of social formation in which they are embedded?

The more interesting question is not whether Hannah Arendt’s interpretive categories enjoy socio-historical validity; whether, in other words, she accurately captured and conveyed a kind of social ontology. I believe that she did. The more interesting question is whether this social ontology is also, as she believed, ontologically fundamental; whether, in other words, her interpretive categories capture and convey something fundamental or foundational about human being as such. Or do they not instead capture and convey something about a historically specific social ontology?

Answering this question struck me as more interesting not only because it offered the satisfaction of deconstructing a scholar whom I deeply admire. To the contrary, it struck me as more interesting because it offered me the satisfaction of deconstructing myself and others like me who, like Arendt herself, are embedded in and therefore share the same (or, at least, a similar) social ontology. This question is more interesting, in other words, because it helps to explain why Hannah Arendt’s Origins strikes so many extremely intelligent and critical individuals as an accurate interpretation of human being in general and of modern totalitarianism in particular. Why do we find Hannah Arendt’s Origins so compelling?

What is it about the place we are embedded that lends validity to Arendt’s narrative?

Hannah Arendt’s narrative strikes us as valid, I believe, because it accurately reflects (albeit in a “misrecognized” form) the two-fold character of the commodity form by which social relations are mediated and social subjectivity is structured in fact and not simply as an illustration of “false consciousness.” Here on the bodies and minds of the individuals and communities that make up Arendt’s narrative is both the abstract value form of the commodity and its lifeless, brute material form of appearance.

But—and this is absolutely critical—these two forms do not occupy two bodies, two groups, two nations, or two ethne. These two forms compose the two-sided, binary nature, of the one commodity form. This form then Hannah Arendt reads back upon the body and mind of human beings whose bodies and minds actually, in fact, display these forms—not, however, because they actually are ontologically fundamental, but because they are genuinely, because socially and historically, ontological. In other words, Hannah Arendt’s interpretive categories—her origins, if you will—do not illustrate an instance of false consciousness, such that if we looked beneath the surface we would see the authentic nature of men and women whose bodies and minds and deeds were not shaped by commodity production and exchange.

No. Because these men and women are actually, in fact, shaped by these practices they therefore actually do display this binary code, this two-fold social ontology. It is not a fiction.

And, yet, it was also clear to me (in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense of méconnaissance) that Hannah Arendt “misrecognized” and therefore ontologized the (in fact) historically limited, social character of her interpretive categories, mistaking them for categories of fundamental human ontology.

Several potentially important conclusions follow from this immanent critique of Hannah Arendt’s Origins. First, Arendt’s Origins offers us genuine insights, although certainly not into the composition of social actors or communities who lived or live a safe distance from communities composed by commodity production and exchange. These other social actors or communities are composed by different regimes of practice and therefore would invite us to deploy different interpretive categories. But, at least with respect to those of us whose social ontologies are shaped by commodity production and exchange, Hannah Arendt’s Origins offers truly valuable insights.

Second, however, we need to take care not to objectify (or reify) the two elements that compose this binary social code. The one does not exist without the other, in the same individuals, in the same groups and communities. On the level of social psychology, this could suggest, for example, that Sigmund Freud’s map of human psychological ontology needs to be reinterpreted in a less rigorously biological manner or in a more socially and historically nuanced manner, as was often, in fact, Freud’s own practice if not his theory. Reinterpreting psychoanalytic interpretive categories in this light might help us to recognize the critical, mutually constitutive interchange between social and psychological ontology, recognizing, for example, in potentially morbid self-loathing an object that is more than merely a projection or fiction. For, to the extent that our social psychology is composed by the abstract value form of the commodity, and to the extent that this form is genuinely hostile to its material form of appearance, morbid self-loathing gives accurate expression to a tension that is more than merely psychological.

Of course, the same would hold true for the potentially morbid loathing of the “other,” whose alterity is never only a mere projection of the psychopath. Identifying the social psychological ontology that selects for a specific “other” is therefore just as important as identifying the pathology that projects the cause for this pain upon the body of the “other.” In this sense, critical psychoanalysis can never be a purely private or purely psychological affair between an analyst and an analysand.

Third, this kind of immanent critique may help explain why our social formation, generally, displays a deep hostility to the body, whether this hostility displays itself in the self-abuse of obesity, alcoholism, drug abuse, anorexia, or self-mutilation, or in the more socially and culturally acceptable form of ascetic meditation, bodily self-discipline, steroid abuse, plastic surgery, Botox treatment, or obsessive exercise. An immanent critique grounded in the the commodity form may help us to better appreciate why a social formation that from all appearances is excessively materialistic embraces forms of spirituality that are almost unilaterally hostile to the body. And, of course, such a critique might also help us to come to terms with over a century of interminable low-level world war.

Fourth, it stands to reason that if this specific social ontology is not lodged in human ontology as such, but can be related directly to the practices that mediate social relations in our specific social formation, then there is reason to believe that a deliberate, self-conscious effort to alter these social practices could give rise to an entirely different social ontology—a social ontology not grounded in commodity production and exchange. Moreover, we are familiar with such other social ontologies not only from anthropological research into social formations not grounded in commodity production and exchange, but also from our own social ontologies which, however entangled in abstract value and its material form of appearance, are also shaped and formed by other social practices such as family relations, friendship, convivial celebration, creation, death, and the ongoing, though increasingly attenuated relationships we bear to other creatures and to the cosmos at large. Notice of and attention to these other social practices might not only yield non-binary codes, but codes that display a cornucopia of meanings and values of which, we are assured from other social formations, human being is fully able to bear without breaking.

Which leads me to the final realization that arose out of my study of Hannah Arendt’s Origins. The Greek ontology—whether pre-Socratic or Aristotelian it makes no difference—that yielded the interpretive categories that Arendt fashioned and deployed to suit mature capitalist society is itself socio-historically specific. There is therefore no necessity of ontologizing or reifying these categories into ontologically fundamental standpoints of critique. For if we are correct in assuming that ontology is always social and psychological and, therefore, is always grounded in and arising out of the regimes of practice in which it appears, then the selective borrowings we elect to apply to our own understandings—borrowings always shaped by our own regimes of practice—at best enjoy analogical or (better) dialogical validity. They are, therefore, never fundamental even for ourselves.

It is a rare mind and book that gives us the opportunity to develop these kinds of thoughts. For me, twenty years ago, that mind and book was Hannah Arendt’s Origins, which assumed validity for me because of a dialogue that Arendt had the courage to initiate. And for this I am thankful.