Arendt and the miracle of action


I was doing a bit of research today and came across a passage from one of Arendt’s famous books, The Human Condition. Let me start with the passage:

Without the disclosure of the agent in the act, action loses its specific character and becomes one achievement among others.  It is then, indeed, no less a means to an end than making is a means to produce an object.  This happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side and against the enemy.  In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed “mere talk,” simply one more means toward an end whether it serves to deceive the enemy or to dazzle everybody with propaganda (180).

As in all things with Arendt, there are a great many things going on in the passage (e.g., the reference to the “disclosure of the agent in the act” would take quite a while to explain); however, I want to highlight one core aspect, which is the interplay between the “miraculous” and the “ordinary” in this passage.  Let us note first that, in the first sentence, Arendt is alluding to the idea that action is not just one achievement among others; to be sure, it can become this when “human togetherness is lost” (her example of this loss of togetherness–modern warfare–is interesting; on the one hand, the loss of togetherness is obvious in the sense that we are no longer together with the enemy, but even among “us”–the friends–this togetherness is lost, since in becoming unified against “them,” plurality is lost.  The space “in between” disappears as we become a unity).  Nevertheless, her language is quite clear: the “specific character” of action is to be something different from other achievements–different from, say, making a chair or cleaning the house.

Now, let us recall Arendt’s conception of power, which describes as an action in concert.  Let us also note what makes this action in concert possible: in On Violence, Arendt notes that power (action in concert) derives its legitimacy from the “initial getting together rather than from any action that might follow” (p. 52).  In other places, for instance in her book On Revolution, Arendt makes it clear that this initial getting together is legitimate insofar as it is based on free and sincere promises.  So we can say that legitimate power is a form of action in concert that arises on the basis of free and sincere promising.  What is interesting here, however, is that promise-making is a rather ordinary activity.  Action in concert–which as we see in the quoted paragraph above is extraordinary–is deeply connected to something rather everyday and mundane.

This, I want to suggest, is not an error or a contradiction; rather, part of what Arendt is trying to do is to orient us toward a recognition of the extraordinary in ordinary life.  When we look at the world from this point of view, we can see that ordinary practices–promise keeping, speaking, and so on–can take on heroic or extraordinary casts.  Action and speech sustains the social fabric, or maintains political reality, often in the face of extraordinary pressures to undo or destroy it.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean: In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt describes the remarkable case of a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt.  Schmidt ended up providing significant material support to the Jewish underground resistance movement in Poland.  His actions were eventually discovered, and he was executed by the Germans in the spring of 1942.  Arendt’s discussion of Schmidt is, I think, quite telling.  One of the arguments frequently made by Germans in the aftermath of the war is that they didn’t resist the Nazis because such resistance would have been useless.  Not only, the argument goes, would it have failed to achieve any real changes, but the resistance most likely would simply have been fully forgotten: it is in the nature of totalitarian regimes not just to purge all resistance but consign it to oblivion–to make sure that all traces of resistance are forgotten.  Arendt counters this argument in the following way:

It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June 1942 on, to erase all traces of the massacres…were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain.  The holes of oblivion do not exist.  Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible.  One man will always be left alive to tell the story.  Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run.  It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told.  For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp.  Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places, but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation (pp. 232-233).

Anton Schmidt’s actions were at once ordinary and extraordinary: nothing could be more ordinary and normal than helping another in need, in acting morally and with integrity; yet under conditions of terror, these ordinary acts become miraculous.  And this is why his actions were not (and are not) in vain.  In acting in ways that disclosed his integrity, in acting to maintain the social fabric, in reproducing human togetherness, he in fact achieved something extraordinary, perhaps even the greatest thing humans can achieve in this world: he made the world fit for human habitation.


2 Responses to “Arendt and the miracle of action”

  1. hpicasso Says:

    I have been spending a lot of time recently working on my Musical Arts senior project which involves seeking an understanding of what accounts for effective, sustainable community development. Some of the components I have identified fit well with Hannah Arendt’s concept of power. One of the key ingredients that seems to foster success in community work is the choice to use Asset-Based Community Development. This development model involves focusing on a community’s capacities instead of focusing on deficiencies and needs. A major part of this model is asset-mapping, identifying resources that are available in a community and building relationships between these resources so they can be utilized. This form of community-building involves people “acting together in concert”. The constructive type of power Arendt describes is the major one at work here.

    The strongest example of Asset-Based Community Development (and the power Arendt writes about) is evident in the work of a national non-profit organization called KaBOOM! that helps communities build playgrounds across the country. I did an internship with this organization last summer. In addition to building safe places to play for children where there is a need, this organization aims to train communities in Asset-Based Community Development so that they are empowered to take on community improvement projects in the future and will have the tools to do so.

    In order to be chosen to receive a new playground a community must fundraise a portion of the cost of equipment. KaBOOM! provides training and guidance with this process. Project leaders are trained in asset-mapping and learn to identify capacities in their own communities. In order for the playground build project to be a success, these project leaders must succeed in bringing people together. There are two main events associated with building the playground—Design Day and Build Day. On Design Day, children and parents who will be using the new playground along with others who are involved, meet to design the playground and choose equipment etc. After more planning and prep work it is time for Build Day. Community leaders and leaders from KaBOOM! do set-up and prep work and then hundreds of volunteers arrive on the Build Day and the entire playground goes up in one day. People from all walks of life take part in this process. I had the opportunity to volunteer on a Build Day in Washington, DC last summer and I can say that it is one of the strongest examples I know of power being created by “people acting in concert”. It was incredible to see an empty lot at the beginning of the day and a new playground at the end of the day. Every aspect of the playground (including side construction projects) was completed because of people coming together with the belief that children in that community should have access to a great, safe place to play. Through Asset-Based Community Development, people were trained to recognize and utilize their capacities. By acting together on these capacities, people are able to do amazing things. Communities are empowered to take on development projects in the future.

  2. hpicasso Says:

    I have been thinking about what exactly Arendt means by “coming together to act in concert”. There are so many ways that people passively ‘come together’ these days and a lot of this doesn’t result in meaningful action. On social networking sites like facebook, there are an incredible amounts of groups to join, offering support to different causes, ‘taking a stand’ on certain issues etc. Is this a form of ‘coming together’? It doesn’t really involve any action.

    What about joining an organization? Is this truly a form of ‘coming together’? Is substantial power generated? When I lived in Washington DC last summer, it was nearly impossible to go anywhere without being approached by someone asking you to join their cause. I would usually keep walking or politely say “I’m sorry I can’t help at this time”, but one day I got caught up in the moment and decided that I wanted to do something. I wanted to take action. While looking at a picture of a polar bear on a melting iceberg, and talking to an activist, I decided that I should be able to contribute some of my grocery money every month to be part of something larger than myself. So on that hot, DC summer day I joined ‘Greenpeace’. I got on the metro feeling happy, feeling a sense of power from ‘joining with others’ to take action. In the days following, I talked to my friends and classmates about joining Greenpeace and I researched the organization to see what they actually do. I got to thinking, “Is this organization making a positive impact in the world? Are they ultimately helping the environment? What are the methods they use to raise awareness and gather support?” Caring for the environment is without question one of the most important issues of our day. The issue was not whether I should be doing something to care for the environment, but whether joining this organization was actually going to help in a powerful and meaningful way.

    I began to wonder if this organization was a good one to support. Do they have a degree of power and influence? Are they able to make a difference.? When reading about some of the tactics used by Greenpeace, I realized that they were isolating people in society from the cause and adding to an image of crazy environmentalists engaging in illegal activities. I agree with the dire need to draw attention to the issues raised by Greenpeace, but I am not sure if the methods are as powerful and effective as they could be.

    I eventually cancelled my monthly contribution to Greenpeace and decided that I should research different environmental groups and make an informed decision about which group to join when I have an income and can make a contribution. To me, this experience illustrates the point that power does not lie only in the act of coming together, but in choices made about how to go about working for change.

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