Archive for the ‘Arendt’ Category

Arendt and ‘Clicktivism’

November 19, 2014

We all have that friend on Facebook who persistently posts feminist articles, along with a self-righteous statement, cleverly crafted to reflect their colorful personality and hint their political views. Or that one Tumblr user who will not stop reblogging pictures of sad puppies to ‘raise awareness’ for animal abuse.  ‘All you need to do is click to donate just $5 to the [insert name here] Foundation.’  We usually  ignore it and scroll down to the next post.

Often times we see posts in social media about war, political injustice, abuse and violence our first reaction is the obvious  empathy and disturbance followed by a frantic youtube search for cute animals.  The internet gives us the opportunity to gawk at, shudder, and then subsequently flee from the situation whereas fifty years ago there was no such escape – the news was simply television, radio, and newspaper. God forbid, life gets out of hand and you can bury your nose in a book. The internet has nurtured our complacency and allowed for individual conscience to flourish. On social media we seek to assuade our conscience by reblogging, reposting, commenting, etc to give an impression of our compassion to the issue, however it does not serve much purpose than to further circulate the information and spread the word. Not to deny the importance of  ‘raising awareness,’ but seldom does recognition of an issue push for public political action.

Take the KONY 2012 campaign. Thanks to social media the attention it recieved was immense and had potential to be a huge turn out for international actvism. Millions of people watched the campaign video, pledged to get involved in ‘Invisible Children’ fundraisers  and so on. However the presentation and poor organization of information prevented the campaign from leaving the internet. What’s left of KONY 2012 are the stickers and  a whole lot of controversy.

Or, more recently, the ALS ice bucket challenge. How many people who did the ice bucket challenge actually donated to the cause? Many who doused themselves did so or had to donate $100 to the ALS Foundation. So, yes, indeed it ‘raised awareness’  – and all the wealthy celebrities got involved and donated most of the money. But this is the ultimate example of collective conscience. We douse ourselves for ‘visibility’ – we are feeding our own egos while simultaneously supposedly helping this cause. I am certainly not one to argue against the effectiveness or decry the effect/effort put into this internet movement. This is simply to point out the danger of ‘click-to-donate’  activism.

Whatever the cause is there is the common phenomenon of the information spreading like wildfire and then a quick burnout; no activism seen outside the computer screen. There is a visible international response  but no follow up, therefore rendering public politics innefective. Therefore much of our ‘clicktivism’ is us acting in compassion and/or perhaps conscience, yet rarely do we decide to take matters beyond making an online donation. “Here, as elsewhere, conscience is unpolitical. It is not primarily interested in the world where the wrong is committed or in the  consequences that the wrong will have for the future of the world.” [Arendt p60].  What Arendt states here is that there is that conscience and the duty of being a good citizen are separate. Being a good citizen would require political action and the functioning of individuals in concert to represent a cause.

The problem that lies in ‘clicktivism’ or social media activism is that it does not involve genuine engagement in poitics in context of participation and public demonstration. Participatory democracy, in which individual citizens directly make political decisions about policies relevant to them, is becoming obsolete thanks to social media. Thus it  further damages politics by allowing private consumption/advertising and the propigation of the citizens personal beliefs rather than promoting facts. The basis of many social media interactions are emotional, which allows for apolitical activity such as conscience  to continue. Conscience is then manipulated in  a way that prioritizes  consumption before conscientious objection.

 

 

The miracle of the ordinary

November 11, 2014

It has become something of an ongoing joke in class that I have a tendency to emphasize how bleak everything is. I suppose it’s true. One can hardly spend large amounts of time studying the world of human affairs without becoming aware of the extraordinary levels stupidity, mendacity, and violence at work in how humans conduct themselves. Arendt was perhaps more aware of this than most of us; having lived through the rise of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, she knew quite well just how awful people–even supposedly civilized and moral ones–could be. Still, one of the things that is most interesting about her is that she insists not just on looking at the awfulness of human affairs squarely, but also insists on thinking about how to remain politically and morally responsible even in dark times.

Consider the following passage, which comes from her book, The Human Condition:

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; her claim, in short, is that it is through genuine action that we create/disclose who we are, as opposed to what we are); 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. 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. How is it different? Well, like violence, making a chair is instrumental; one does X, Y, and Z to achieve some specific end (the chair). Action, by contrast, has no pre-defined end; indeed, it is “open-ended,” in the sense that the meaning of my action depends upon how others receive and interpret my action (We can clearly see this in, for instance, in Jesus’s action to be crucified; the meaning of this action has clearly been interpreted and reinterpreted over the millennia. The action that inspired, say, the civil rights protesters was interpreted by Torquemada to support the persecution and torture of heretics. Whatever Jesus might have meant by his action, it is clear that he isn’t actually in control of how others respond to it). Action is connected to a form of speech that is not aimed at deception or dazzling with propaganda, but toward disclosing the actor, forming (or re-forming) a group, on creating something new in the social world.

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.” 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 dimensions. 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, emphasis in original).

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. Schmidt seemed to understand this. In his letters to his wife, he explained his actions by describing how he felt when he saw his fellow soldiers murdering children: “You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them.” And he added, “I only acted as a human being and desired doing harm to no one.” With these words we can see why Arendt thought that only goodness has any “depth,” that only goodness was interesting. In the face of overwhelming social pressure and violence, Schmidt remained true to the core moral principle, “thou shalt not kill,” and this adherence is truly remarkable and worth thinking about.

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. Indeed, he achieved perhaps even the greatest thing humans can achieve in this world: he made the world fit for human habitation; he reminded us, in other words, that humans are still free, that we can still act, and that we can always maintain our integrity and our responsibility.

This, it seems to me, cuts to the heart of Arendt’s preoccupations. She wants to understand how action, power, and politics–how human activity, in short–can make this world still a place worth living in. All times humans have lived have been “dark times,” we might say. The question, then, is how we can act in ways that provide some light in that darkness.

Bernie Sanders Channels his Inner Arendt

November 8, 2014

In the wake of the recent midterm elections, I thought I would share this interview with the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders (Sanders characterizes himself as a socialist, but in this interview he channels the idea of participatory democracy). The interview is around 25 minutes long, though you can read the transcript if you’d prefer. One key moment in the interview is this:

BILL MOYERS: How do you make the Hillary wing of the Democratic Party pay attention to the power of a populist message unless you’re in the debates in 2016, when most of the public is paying attention to political messages?

BERNIE SANDERS: This has been my political experience. When you rally the grassroots of the country or the city or of your state, when people begin to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough. We want to do well by our kids. We want to protect the environment. We believe we should join the rest of the world in terms of having health care for all, single-payer health care for all, et cetera, et cetera.’

When people begin to move, the people on top will follow them. So, whether it’s Hillary or anybody else, what we have got to do is mobilize the American people in a way that we have not seen in recent history around a progressive agenda. Bill, every poll that I have seen, when they ask the American people, what is the most important issue that you’re concerned about? You know what they say? Jobs and the economy.

How come we are not investing heavily in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. $1 trillion invested in rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, rail creates 13 million decent-paying jobs. You know what? The American people want us to do that. They want us to raise the minimum wage. So, you need a very strong agenda. You need a mechanism. And you’ve asked a hard question. Easier to say than to do, to rally people around that agenda. And once you do that, things will take care of itself.

BILL MOYERS: This is what Barack Obama did in 2008. He asked people to take over the Democratic Party, progressives and populists, everyday people that you describe in your speech out in Richmond. He asked those people to come in and, elect me and we’ll do just exactly what Bernie Sanders would do if he were president. Hasn’t happened.

BERNIE SANDERS: I have lot of respect for Barack Obama. But, his biggest mistake is that, after running a brilliant campaign in 2008, where millions of people in fact were galvanized, young people, people of color came out and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make some real change.’ The day after the election he said, okay, thank you very much. Now I’m going to work inside the Beltway and we’re going to start negotiating with Republicans and all that stuff. The simple truth is, in my view, nothing gets done unless millions and millions of people will demand it. Politics is 365 days a year.

BILL MOYERS: Not just voting?

BERNIE SANDERS: Exactly. And anyone, you can have the best person in the world as president of the United States, that person will accomplish nothing unless millions of people are standing behind him or her. Just an example, Bill, everybody, all the young people in this country are worried about student debt. The fact that hundreds of thousands of young people can’t even afford to go to college.

You have a million people, a million young people marching on Washington saying, there’s a vote coming up. And if you vote the wrong way, we know who you are. We actually are paying attention. You aren’t going to get reelected. We will lower the cost of college substantially and deal with the student debt crisis. It will not happen. It will not happen unless millions of people are activated.

The Arendtian notion of power here is quite obvious. There is a tendency, he argues, for people to think that social change occurs primarily through passing laws or getting courts to recognize various rights. In contrast to this, Sanders claims that passing a law is often only the beginning of a political conflict, not its end. Consider the ACA (also known as “Obamacare”). The law as passed in 2010; since then, the Republican party has taken every step it can to get rid of it. They have tried to repeal it and to get the court system to declare it to be illegal. But they have also taken steps to make sure that its implementation is unsuccessful (for instance, states where Republicans have majorities have not enacted the insurance exchanges the law calls for, thus requiring the Federal government to set them up instead; similarly, many Republican-controlled states have refused federal money to extend Medicaid coverage to the poor). In other words, for better or for worse (I make no judgment here), the Republican party has mobilized its supporters to treat the passage of the ACA as the start of an ongoing political battle. Sanders, in effect, is arguing that the Democrats need to do the same thing. If you want more spending to improve infrastructure, create better health care, or increase support for education (thus reducing student loan debt), we cannot wait for political leaders to spontaneously decide to do so. There must instead be the organization and generation of public power.

Of course, the trouble here is that this kind of power cannot (by definition) be fostered or administered from above. Moreover, for various reasons, almost no one has any experience in organizing or developing such power. We don’t even know where to begin, and so we have no “taste” for action, its joys and its obstacles. In this respect, Sanders’ comments might (or might not) be inspiring, but they also seem peculiarly hollow, at least to me. People have been making the point Sanders is articulating here for decades, but it’s still not entirely clear what precisely one could do to foster the kind of action he’s calling for.

 

Civil Disobedience

October 30, 2014

In this post, I would like to engage in the post on civil disobedience in Hong Kong and analyze the movement in reference to Arendt’s article on civil disobedience.

 

The atmosphere in Hong Kong is quite unstable, because the downtown area is occupied by people protesting against the government, and indirectly against the PRC government, for not providing a democratic election method for the election of the Hong Kong chief governor in 2017.

 

It is interesting to see that this disobedience movement is unique in its own way, and it actually differs a little from the definitions and descriptions provided by Arendt. This is due to the unique status of Hong Kong and the unprecedented situation it faces now.

 

First of all, the demand of the protesters is not the demand of minority group. The demand for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, I suppose, is basically willed by the majority of the Hong Kong people who participate in politics (others who do not participate in politics do not care about this issue and do not have a stance). This is different from the type analyzed by Arendt, and the one lead by M.L. King. This cannot be said as the minority view of the Hong Kong people inside the bigger China, because this is totally Hong Kong’s own affair. Moreover, most people in other parts of China do not know well about this movement, because the media in China is heavily censored.

 

This obedience movement is essentially the protest against an unjust government, be it the Hong Kong government or the higher PRC government. The officials in these two bodies of government are not democratically elected, and Hong Kong people are resentful towards their government (in other part of China many people do not even know that their government can be bad). Note that the basic law of Hong Kong (the mini constitution of Hong Kong), which states things that could potentially hinder the development of universal suffrage, is not a law that is designed or willed by Hong Kong people themselves. The PRC government simply promulgated the law coercively. There is no such bonding and association that the law could bring to people.

 

The whole situation is basically about the coercive power being acted unwillingly upon a group of people, and the two parties, the power and the coerced, are not bonded on any mutual ground. This is different from the kind of disobedience Arendt describes.

Civil Disobedience in Hong Kong

September 29, 2014

This is only tangentially connected to the stuff we’ve covered in class so far, but as you may have heard, there are massive and ongoing protests in going on in Hong Kong. At issue is the question of how candidates for upcoming elections will be nominated. Officials in Beijing have decided that they will not permit open nominations for candidates for election (which is to say that nominees will be chosen in a closed process). The protesters argue that this closed nomination process will produce candidates who follow Beijing’s direction*. Anyway, protests like this will become more directly relevant in our discussions of Arendt in a few weeks. In the mean time, you should just keep up on current affairs. So Ingrid Robeyns has a very useful post (and links) here. As Robeyns points out, many news outlets in China (particularly the state-run outlets) have not commented at all on these protests. Part of the reason for this post, then, is to share the news of these events as widely as possible.

*For those of you who don’t know, Hong Kong has a special status within China (it’s a “special administrative region” that maintains greater autonomy within the PRC than most regions do) . It was a British colony until 1997, and after the British withdrew, there was a general agreement that Hong Kong would retain a system separate from China, including a separate and independent judiciary, multi-party elections, and so on (“one country; two systems” was the slogan). So part of the protests have to do with the protesters’ worries that this separateness is being threatened.

The Importance of Consequences

May 12, 2012

I recently started listening to a podcast called writing excuses. It’s aimed at aspiring genre (sifi/fantasy/horror ect.) writers, but it’s a lot of fun to listen to even if you have no intention of ever writing anything that is not required for class. One of my favorite episodes is the one on violence. The podcasters (who are all published authors) talk about how they portray violence in their books. It’s only 15 min long, you should go listen to it before continuing.

The podcasters end up talking about the consequences of violence in their books more than the violence itself. They argue that it is the exploration of how violence affects characters and situations that is compelling to the reader. This can be thought of in terms of Arendt’s definition of violence. She claims that violence is instrumental. It must have a purpose and cannot be an end in itself. Whether violence will work towards or against its intended purpose is never clear because it is part of human action which, according to Arendt, is always unpredictable. When the podcasters explore the possible consequences of violence, they are examining whether or not it achieved its intended goal and what some of the possible unintended effects could be.

Early in the podcast, the authors talk about an incredibly violent scene form the Matrix. They said it was beautifully choreographed and fun to watch, but it bothered them because it had no consequences. From an Arendtian point of view, this is an example of violence that is not being used instrumentally. Because the violence has no goal (Okay, so you can argue that the goal is to save Morpheus, but surly they could have found a more desecrate way into the building.) it has become an end in itself. The movie fails to acknowledge any consequences of using violence this way. The violence stops feeling real to the viewer and becomes no more compelling than a well choreographed dance.

This is actually a general trend of how violence is used in movies, video games, and cartoons. None of the characters react realistically in the story, so neither does the viewer/gamer/reader. In these situations, violence is no longer being acknowledged as an action in the Arendtian sense of the word. It is being used only for visual appeal (like a light show) and  has no real effect other than to change the color of the walls or carpet.

When violence is acknowledged as an action, it can change things. It has consequences that can then be explored. The fun thing about reading (and probably writing) books (or movies/games/TV shows) is that you can explore many different possible reactions to violence. The more a reader can identify with, or at least understand, a characters response, the more compelling that character and the situation they are in will be.

Pinky Promise

March 30, 2012

I’m scrambling to get summer festival stuff sorted out and am (somewhat superficially) reminded of Arendt’s conception of public promise.  By signing and returning an acceptance form to a summer program, I believe I am making a public commitment to attend the program.  Once I have made this promise, I am compelled to keep it — not out of self-interest — but due to the public nature of the promise (if this sounds vague it is because my understanding of this part of the argument is vague).  Of course, if this were true, summer programs would not require me to deposit $250, refundable only if I follow through with said promise.  I think that the summer programs have learned that, without selfish incentive, its applicants will not consistently keep promises they have made.

With Love,
Miles Cole

Arendt and the Grapes of Wrath

May 10, 2010

Post by John Driscoll

I was recently having a discussion with my father, a former farmer, about the dust bowl. Of course, I was inclined to bring up some of the things we had talked about at the beginning of the year, but afterwards I began thinking about the Grapes of Wrath from an Arendtian perspective. In regards to her ideas about authority, I would say the Bank, in the context of Chapter 5, displayed both of the behaviors Arendt identifies as authority-reducing. When comparing her discussion of the abusive parent to the Bank, it is easy to see how this abuse of power caused the farmers to completely lose respect for the Bank.

            In her discussion, Arendt points out that there are two primary ways in which a parent can lose authority over their child. First, the parent could argue with the child, thus giving the child power in its words and actions. Second, the parent could beat the child, which would automatically show that there is no reason the child should obey other than the fear of physical suffering. In both cases, the child would lose respect for the parent first, which then leads to a loss of authority on the parents behalf. As mentioned in class earlier, respect and authority are married; one cannot maintain authority without the respect of his or her subjects.

            In the case of the Grapes of Wrath, the Bank showed a shining example of how violence, or in this case, legal power with the threat of violence, caused the farmers to completely lose whatever small amount of respect they had for the Bank. By completely controlling the physical actions of the farmers through various policies (e.g. ordering which crops to be harvested, when, and by what means,) the Bank was relying on a subdued form of violence to maintain control over the tenants. They then went on to continue this form of abuse by forcing the tenants off their land. All the while, one can see the specter of Arendt shaking her head in disapproval of the Banks abuse of power and subsequent loss of authority. The sad truth about all this is that none of the suffering, either from the tenants or employees of the bank, was necessary. It is only because of the collective failure of everyone involved to even attempt to challenge the authorities. Because no one believed they had the strength, or as a group, the power to affect change, the cycle continued.

            I guess in the end, the only changes that are ever made come from the belief that it is possible. No matter what amount of strength or power any individual or group of people possess, they will never implement change without first realizing it is a possibility. From this perspective, our imaginations are our only real limitation, it seems…

Banality of Evil

May 8, 2010

When we studied Hannah Arendt, the concept of “the banality of evil” was brought up. The quote comes from Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem and was used to describe Adolph Eichmann’s role in the Nazi concentration camps as an administrator of the concentration camps. Arendt, applying the concept of “the banality of evil” to Eichmann’s role, claims that Eichmann was “just doing his job” and was being a good bureaucrat. In order to carry out his job, Eichmann had to ignore the evil that was involved with his job. The idea of ignoring evil so that one can go about life describes the concept of “the banality of evil”.
I became interested in “the banality of evil” because I have just finished reading the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and I felt that what I read in the book directly related to Arendt’s quote. The book was published last fall and describes the author’s experiences with vegetarianism, animal rights, and most of all, today’s meat industry. Throughout the book the author tells how he visited factory farms across the United States and describes the horrors that he witnessed. However, I do not feel that in doing so the author wished that he would convert his readers into vegetarians. Rather, I interpreted the author’s message as a warning or that he is alerting us to something about ourselves. I feel that his goal is to get the readers to think about what we eat and where it comes from, instead of ignoring it.
There were many instances mentioned in the book where workers had to ignore what they were witnessing in order to do their job. Some examples that I can think of off the top of my head are: the amount of space given to factory farm animals, a large amount of animals cannot move their bodies because their genetics have been altered to the point where their skeletons cannot support themselves, some animals can no longer sexually reproduce due to the poor conditions, factory farms animals live off medicine and antibiotics, etc. Jonathan Safran Foer also tells of health inspectors inspecting these farms and their tolerance of these conditions. It seems to me that on many levels, people are ignoring these animal abuses so that meat can be produced and money can be made. Also, I do not believe that this animal abuse is news to the public. There has been a good amount of media coverage of factory farms, yet no one is taking any action to stop what is happening. On a personal level, I admit that I too am participating in ignoring what is happening and continues to happen. I feel that what I can do to help fight these evils is to either stop buying meat or to buy meat that is produced on family farms- where animals are treated much better than on factory farms. However, I have read this book and I continue to purchase factory-farmed meat. I suppose that it at least good that more word is being spread about the conditions of the meat industry and I am starting to think about what I eat. I think that atleast it is somewhere to start from.

Arendt and the miracle of action

April 14, 2010

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.