AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
edited by Bonnie Honig. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
Two stories about reading Hannah Arendt illustrate the compelling character of her work. The first was recounted several years ago by an older woman when I asked why students were taking my Arendt seminar. This student explained that her mother had been paralyzed by a stroke and was now unable to speak. When the daughter returned to the family home in rural Utah, her father indicated a box of "old books" in the basement that her mother had read with a flashlight under the covers at night. He thought the books useless but perhaps his daughter could sell them. In this Mormon family, poor and modestly educated, the dutiful wife and mother every night read, as it turned out, Hannah Arendt. Why? Never having heard of Arendt before the box of books appeared, the student now had nowhere to turn for an answer but to the texts themselves.
The second story concerns a student watching a film about Fannie Lou Hamer in the early days of the civil rights movement. Returning home on a bus after unsuccessfully trying to register to vote in Mississippi, Hamer and her companions were stopped and viciously threatened on the road. Understandably, they had been terrorized by the ordeal, but Hamer was reported to have begun singing. In response, her companions joined in and then recommitted themselves to further collective political work. My quietest student, who in a previous quarter had difficulty grasping what Arendt's concept of the "space of appearances" could mean in contemporary America, suddenly spoke, pointing out that Hamer's bus had become a politicized space, in which ordinary people through shared words and deeds appeared to each other as citizens and continued to plan extraordinary acts.
More than twenty years after her death, more than fifty years after the Holocaust, is Arendt's vocation of theorizing the conditions for healthy private and public lives still relevant to us? While the further globalization of "late" capitalism, the onset of cyberspace surveillance, and what might be termed the genomization of the human condition could appear to have rendered her antiquated and ineffectual, a number of current books suggest the opposite: that Arendt's analyses of totalitarianism and its political antidote, thought and action, have become increasingly pertinent to comprehending the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reconstruction of Eastern European polities, the emergence of the environmental justice movement, and the uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. Moreover, we see argued in the books under review here that Arendt's theoretical distinctions, such as that between private and public, might yet prove valuable in assessing and perhaps transforming those major economic and technological lines of force in our personal and collective lives.
There is a sharp escalation of attention within the field of political theory to the corpus of Arendt's work, though her ideas have for many years been in general circulation through, for example, the thinking of Jonathan Schell on nuclear deterrence, Richard Drinnon on U.S. totalitarian tendencies with regard to race relations, Janice Raymond on female friendship, Neil Postman on media, Sarnir al-Khalil on terrorism, Gene Sharp on peace activism, Langdon Winner on technologies, and Murray Bookchin on democratic participation.(1) What do we now gain by this new, intensified look at Arendt's work? What happens when we reposition those ideas, for instance, of public space, banality of evil, civic philia, nonviolent resistance, and political action in the context of her own life and work? What happens to the political reading of Arendt familiar from Schell et al. when we view her ideas within the matrix of larger philosophical systems? And what assumptions have gone into the reconstruction of those contexts?
I want to turn first to Elzbieta Ettinger's brief book because it proposes the most extreme re-vision of Arendt--remeasuring the worth of her political theory by exposure to the practices of her private life. In Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger, Ettinger lays out the history of a love affair from the time Arendt was 18 until her death. This affair of mutual dependence, the author claims, is not just a footnote to the intellectual work of Arendt and Martin Heidegger but, rather, the "key" to understanding their lives. That key explains, according to Ettinger, Arendt's early gender and ethnic insecurity as a "fatherless, searching youngster" and as a young woman "perhaps" "fighting the stereotype of the Jewess" as "loud, self-assured, and clever." That key explains her "obedience" and "passivity" with regard to Heidegger, her irrational idealization of him, her becoming his apologist after the war and "whitewashing" his Nazi past, her willingness to do "anything" to help him, her serving as his "devoted, unpaid agent in the U.S." (p. 78).
Ettinger compares Arendt to Rahel Varnhagen and Anna Karenina, women in love, partially transgressing yet ultimately trapped by conventional relationships. The comparison suggests we need to understand Arendt as we would understand a figure from a different era with outdated values or even a character out of a novel driven by conflicting, unresolved claims. Thus Arendt remains a "tragic" figure torn between an irrational heart and a brilliant mind; intellectually, she could "see through" Heidegger yet not escape him emotionally. The book marks not only Heidegger as the evil, unrepentant Nazi but also Arendt as the hypocrite, whose "ethics and morality" fail in relation to him.
Readers of Arendt/Heidegger may suffer deja vu. "Besides the renowned revolutionary, however, there is another Rosa Luxemburg, a largely unknown person thrice stigmatized: as a woman, as a Jew, and as a cripple," Ettinger wrote in the preface to Rosa Luxemburg: A Life.(2) This, she suggests, is the real Rosa, who can be seen only through the prism of her private letters to her lover, Leo Jogiches. Interestingly, especially given her powerful significance for Arendt,(3) Luxemburg's own political analysis offers us an implicit critique of the similar pattern emergent in both of Ettinger's books.
Ettinger thought it important for us to see this underlife of Luxemburg: she was self-conscious about and tried to disguise her limp, craved typically "bourgeois" feminine things, manipulated and was manipulated by men, and often hated her Jewish heritage at the same time being subjected to powerful anti-Semitism. Ettinger now thinks it important for us to face up to the hidden Arendt with all her insecurities, dependencies, and ethical frailties. The real Rosa, says Ettinger, was as much ridden with conflict, depression, and frustration as she was brilliant and courageous. Similarly, the real Hannah was as much confused by and complicitous with the enemy as she was insightful and tough on the deepest ethical and political questions of her time.
Despite our now having much more detailed pictures of Luxemburg and Arendt as private women, we are left to sort out the meaning of Ettinger's lifting the cover on their private lives. Does Luxemburg's political thought matter much compared with her personal sufferings and longings? When these are made to seem the center of her life, then her claims for participatory democracy for workers, her critique of Western imperialism, and her fight within the Social Democratic Party against centralism and nationalism seem inconsequential. They seem misplaced foci for her work, misdirected efforts leading far away from resolution of her personal dilemmas, leading only to her early death. We might conclude that Luxemburg, who took on other people's battles in public, should instead have tackled her own private issues.
In an even more explicit fashion, Arendt's intellectual work, specifically her analysis of totalitarianism, is, in Ettinger's portrait of her, not only useless against her passion for Heidegger, but her love for the Nazi must call into doubt the quality of that analysis. What merit can an ethical position have that provides its author no guidance in her own private world?
In her public life, Luxemburg argued the limitations of bourgeois liberal thinking. Focused on the individual, the liberal mentality falsely dualizes the world between self and other; it misses significant interconnections between people and the larger context of economic and other structures of authority; and it therefore misses seizing opportunities for political change. From Luxemburg's perspective, Ettinger's search for the authentic Luxemburg through her private letters to her lover reproduces the problems of liberalism. Liberalism easily makes private life, personal happiness, and individual self-conception the context for all other considerations. Once that happens, we lose the parameters required to think about dismantling authoritarian structures.
As we know from her review of J. P. Nettl's 1966 biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Arendt much admired Luxemburg's political analyses. And for Arendt, Nettl disclosed Luxemburg: the woman who put political truth into public discourse and whose revolutionary acts matched her words. Arendt wrote that
even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination,
and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts
than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and
women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all
We need to remember those people--usually at the margins of their own …