There are two large-scale writing/lecturing projects I have had in mind for quite some time: One of them would be an effort at using the basic categories of Arendt's political philosophy as a way of illuminating the political ethos of emerging and proliferating peer-to-peer formations in a general account (note the connection -- beginning but not ending with etymology -- between the term "peer" and the term "appear," recalling the abiding centrality of "appearance" in Arendt's idiosyncratic characterization of the political). The second one is an account of 20C biopolitics giving equal weight to Arendt and Foucault (which isn't exactly unprecedented but remains terribly underelaborated even so in my view) but also to Fanon (which only Gilroy does any real justice to at all in my view). What is really exciting is that I suspect these two projects ultimately are really one project, since I believe that p2p-democratization is opening onto a choice between an anti-democratizing duressed securitized networked surveillance/eugenicism in service to elites-incumbent ends or p2p-democratization is going to take a rather unexpected next form as a politics of consensual prosthetic self-determination involving therapies more than wikis. And part of the point is to insist that an understanding of postwar/postcolonial biopolitics is indispensable to an understanding of either eventuality, or to understanding the complex process as it actually plays out.
All this is very inside baseball, I realize, there's lots of telescoping of sprawling multi-positioned debates and histories and so on, so if you aren't already invested in Arendt, Foucault, Fanon, biopower (in the Foucauldian sense, not the glib journalistic usage one sometimes hears about these days) and so on I'm not trying to make it intelligible to a general audience, so not getting much out of this may just mean you aren't yet part of the audience I have in mind at this stage as the one whose feedback might be of use to me, and you shouldn't take that amiss. One's writing process is one's writing process. Once these ideas are clearer in my mind more elegant formulations offered up to the hearing of a more general audience should be forthcoming. Even so, enough of this will be of interest to a number of my usual correspondents that it makes sense to throw out this denser bit in the hopes of sparking some felicitous connections or book recommendations.
First, here's the student question that launched me onto this mapping exercise (adapted and expurgated somewhat to protect the innocent):
I have an Arendt question and I don't know what would be more sensible than running it past you in case you find yourself with the time and desire to share some of your perspective of her thought. I'm only just getting to know her work, after taking part in a meticulous reading of The Human Condition for class.
One of the most provocative ideas in the book, for me, is that, "Perhaps the most momentous of the spiritual consequences of the discoveries of the modern age ... the reversal of the heirachical order between the vita contemplativa and the vita activa..." (Section 41).
In truth, I feel like it's the book's central claim, or at least one of them.
I feel like I understand what she's talking about, but I don't have a clear sense of what she means to communicate with the term "spiritual." Is there a place in her canon where she speaks to that term outright?
Remember that Arendt is a native German speaker, and coming out of a German culture of philosophy to boot. By "spiritual" she likely means the spirit of zeitgeist, "spirit of the age," rather than the spirit to which people refer with terms like "spirituality." Spirit is a word that indicates something like "character," or to be more properly rhetorical about it, ethos, here, I think.
I agree that this is a key claim of the book -- especially the more you know about the other projects that preoccupied her attention while writing it. I can think of no better place for you to turn your attention than to the book The Promise of Politics, two sets of lectures Arendt long intended to elaborate into proper books, produced roughly contemporaneous with the writing and recollection of The Human Condition (actually entitled Vita Activa in Arendt's heart).
Crucial to this reversal in the status within intellectual life of thought understood as connected to facilitation as against thought understood as offering up consolation is Arendt's location of herself within a Marxian frame of critical theory. Ironic, of course, given her criticisms both of Marx and of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, right? But that frame is announced most forcefully in the famous last Thesis on Feuerbach -- "Hitherto, the philosophers have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it." Arendt is very much post-marxist in both the sense of one whose criticisms move her beyond Marx, but also in the sense of one for whom the encounter with Marx was decisive and remains indispensable.
Interesting to pay special attention to Arendt's use of the phrase "modern" here: Arendt is forever taking up positions within various episodes of the quarrel of the ancients and moderns, an intellectual dispute that begins in aesthetics between partisans of classicism and, for want of a better term, experimentalism (eventually Romanticism), a quarrel that always had a weird affinity for political insinuations, associating itself with temperamental quarrels of revolutionists against incumbents, and so on. Joan DeJean connects these quarrels with various "culture wars" of recent years (the secularists and multiculturalists won those wars by the way, progressives would do well to remember that). In the 20C debates of, say, Lukacs with Bloch and Benjamin and Brecht -- some of whom were very close friends or sympathetic allies of Arendt's -- we find this playing out in Marxist intellectuals struggling to reconcile aesthetic and political avant-gardisms, often with ridiculous results.
Anyway, beyond the general aesthetic quarrel of "the ancients" (traditionalists) as against "the moderns" (experimentalists), with all its shifting political colorations, there was an explicitly political variation on the quarrel of the ancients and moderns, one that Arendt testifies to in especially On Revolution, with the "rise of the social question," and which takes the form of a quarrel between those who view the political as an agonistic space for the facilitation of excellence in the few as against those who view the political as a social space for the amelioration of hardship for the many. Writers as different as Luc Ferry (his Rights volume), Albert Hirschmann (his canonical The Passions and the Interests), and Reinhart Koselleck (his neglected Critique and Crisis), all contribute to our sense of this story of modernities posed against pasts posited as atavisms and spaces posited as primitivisms, as do many of the usual suspects, Latour's We Have Never Been Modern, especially. Complicating matters still further, Arendt also uses the word modern to describe yet another historical moment (there are, after all, endlessly many modernities if there were/are any at all, that's the price of the modernity ticket), the post-atomic age, the post-apocalyptic age -- a sense she takes up from Jaspers and connects up in ambivalent ways with/against Heidegger's critiques of the reductionism of technique.
All this is indeed central to the project of The Human Condition, although, strangely enough, I ultimately think her little piece On Violence deals with these connections most pithily of all, not to mention providing a kind of hub connecting her work most forcefully to the other two (in my view) indispensable theorists of the 20C, Foucault (whose views she complements enormously clarifyingly) and Fanon (with whom she is in conversation in the piece, and without whose supplement neither Arendt nor Foucault do justice to their -- or our -- epoch, nor to the biopolitics these two are credited with and with which we are still contending for now).