Hannah Arendt, by Dr. Samantha Rose Hill

Reading «Hannah Arendt» by Dr. Rose Hill, I’m struck by her idea of “thinking” and its similarities to Jürgen Habermas’ concept of “communicative rationality,” but do not know enough about either to feel that I can properly compare and contrast the two, though I would like to (try, at least).

I’ve learned much about Arendt the human being from this book, which I think is always helpful in understanding a person as a philosopher. New to me was learning that Arendt spent several months in a detention camp in France in the lead up to the Nazi conquest of the country in the early 40s. Arendt has not written much of the camp days, but the reality that Dr. Rose Hill provides is an incredibly grim one.

We are also shown that Arendt was in what we could today coin an “open marriage” with her husband, Dr. Heinrich Blücher, her second husband. We are not told of any scandals this may have caused, though it seems common enough knowledge for various commentators to poke about it.

I am worried that I am missing large chunks of Arendt, or mis-reading the portrayal that Hill is trying to impart: I see her as being affiliated with the Frankfurt School, but not wanting to be associated with them. If anything, I admire Arendt’s singularity, her resistance to all the groupings and labels; her complexity requires us as reader recipients to do a lot of work: not just to understand her, but to actually figure out what we may think in turn (“Top 10 Reacts to CRAZY Hannah Arendt Postulates!!”).

She is not quippy, in the style of Adorno or even Sartre (who though long winded was a fan of the sound bite); nor has she been turned into digestible bits. If anything, she has been quite thoroughly ignored by the “mainstream” of philosophy, in spite of her incredibly close ties to most of the leading figures of the “revolutionary canon.” (Here referring to the post-war post-modernists and the Frankfurt School.)

We may assume this is due to her gender, and not only to her complexity; but perhaps the two are connected? She seemed unconcerned with appearance, image, reception; and quite content to live her life as hers. It is a sad fact that rebellion may be accomplished by doing nothing more than being indifferent to the demands of stereotype or societal role. Worse still is this indifference is seen as a threat by a good portion of the ruling ideologies followers: look at how worked up the American right gets over gender identity.

Arent’s is an orientation to the world that I very much admire, and would like to think about adopting certain views of: mainly that thinking is best when done both socially and individually; and that lived experience should form a basis that overrules philosophical category and the classificatory urge.

That said, I think Arendt’s greatest weaknesses come precisely from her refusal to investigate power of the type which the Marxists (and Frankfurt school and post-structuralists) engage with (almost monomaniacally, in the figure of the online “brocialist” or the meme-ified Foucault “prison, school, factory”). As exemplified in her “Letter On Little Rock” where she was not in favor of the state de-segregating schools, preferring such “social” change to come “organically” (and not viewing racism as a structural element in the United States). Her arguments with Fanon, though briefly mentioned, make me wary of endorsing Arendt wholesale as well.

She insisted that no one could belong to a politics (or ideology) because of being, that they had to knowingly take part. On the level of rational, classic liberalism this sounds fine. But the issue remains that Arendt herself was a woman, and faced structural barriers throughout her life, and so even if she would not like to be “a feminist by virtue of femininity” the fact remains that the power structure she operated already made that choice for her.

The idea that one can “consent” or think one’s way out of the quagmire of embodied politics (identity politics, politics of the body) is naïve, and typically associated with a line of inquiry that ignores material inequity in favor of the very philosophical category and classifications that Arendt sought to reject. Reality has more than a linguistic base, it comprises more than our acknowledged ideas and experiences. We do not need Derrida’s hammer to see the fragility of Arendt’s approach here.

I am only a few pages from finishing the slim volume, which at 210 pages (with pictures) is a quick read as far as biographies of famous philosophers go.

The next book in this “branch” of reading would be Arendt’s own work, of which I have both The Human Condition and The Origins of Totalitarianism. Indirectly, I would consider reading additional work on the Frankfurt School, or Habermas. Berthold Brecht is a poet that Arendt was close to, and there is always Eichmann In Jerusalem.