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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Returning to the Arendtian "Turn" on Judgment

We do, therefore I am; I think, therefore we've done.
In the essay Ronald Beiner appended to his edited volume of Arendt's Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, he proposes that "[h]er writings on… judgment fall into two… phases: early and late… Arendt offers two distinct conceptions of judgment… the first relating to the world of praxis, the second to that of contemplation." When he connects the first conception to the vita activa, the subject and even an alternate title of her Human Condition and then locates the second in a concern with "the life of the mind" (the title of her final, if unfinished, published work) one cannot help but wonder whether the distinction may amount to little more than the fact that Arendt did not repeat herself in writing her two most philosophically substantial works, separated by two decades of original, provocative, critical writings. Although Beiner is careful to resist the implication that these two conceptions represent an absolute break, I think it is actually important to emphasize the contrary point, that a concern with judgment spans Arendt's writing and, further, that it would be wrong to assume the differences in her formulations indicate a turn away from the earlier for the latter one, rather than revealing two dimensions of a phenomenon that she emphasized in different accounts but which may be indispensably connected in Arendt's full understanding of the task of "thinking what we are doing."

I do not accept the implication of Beier's narrative, then, when he writes: "The more she reflected on the faculty of judgment, the more inclined she was to regard it as the prerogative of the solitary (though public-spirited) contemplator as opposed to the actor (whose activity is necessarily non-solitary). One acts with others; one judges by oneself (even though one does so by making present in one's imagination those who are absent)." I do not deny that Arendt's formulations changed with time, but these explorations need not indicate that she jettisoned preceding formulations rather than supplementing them, and I suspect the parenthetic qualifications Beier appends to his thesis already reflect awareness of the trouble in trying to force the turn he is considering too intently. For me the force of both of the different accounts of judgment in The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind finally depend on their relation to one another.

And so, for example, when Beier rightly points out that "[i]n judging, as understood by Arendt, one weighs the possible judgments of an imagined Other, not the actual judgments of real interlocutors," I do not accept at all his implication that this is more relevant to the vita contemplativa than to the vita activa. There is in my view a crucial continuity in the accounts of power offered up by Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault -- and I would add, Frantz Fanon -- not only in their separate insistence on power as productive rather than repressive (probably most conspicuous in Arendt's "On Violence," which, given that piece's discussion of Fanon introduces a host of provocative questions into the account I make of a shared Arendtian-Fanonian-Foucauldian bio-political critical theory, some of which I begin to respond to here), but also in the proposal of an essentially rhetorical characterization of the politics which is power's domain.

Power in Foucault arises when one assumes a calculative disposition toward the other from whom one would solicit agreement or collaboration in one's ends, all the while understanding the risk of reversibility arising in any situation with another who knows and wants differently from oneself. It is ultimately from this situation that arises the famous Foucauldian slogans "no power without resistance," "wherever power emerges, resistance arises" and so on. Although Arendt would not likely be thrilled with Foucault's choice of the word "calculation" to capture it, I would say that it is also ultimately from this situation that arises the famous Arendtian proposition that every act re-enacts natality, the beginning in birth into the world of a new generation with who knows what problems and promises, the release in action into the world of forces that will inevitably have unintended consequences and unexpected impacts.

What is crucial to the point I am making here, however, is to insist that every act both offers up a judgment to the hearing of the world that will have its way with it and render its own judgments unto it, but also that each act begins in a translation of subjective experience and aspiration into terms that one imagines will be most legible and conducive to the audience in the occasion into whose hearing it is offered, an act of imagination that is also a matter of judgment. That one is sometimes forced (or able) to adapt one's imagined anticipation of the other on the fly in face to face political encounters while the pace of the give-and-take in the publication of considered judgments is a more slow-moving affair, even in the age of public intellectuals on social media, the experience of these differences is not to be denied but neither does it seem to align with a philosophical distinction of worldly deliberation from the free play of reflection that need not ever find its way to voice to enrich the life of the thinker devoted to its pleasures and provocations. Every testament abides only in the collaborative writing of its readership, every deed endures only in being appropriated by the wider world: I think, therefore we've done. One might wish Arendt's mastery of the colloquialism "when the chips are down" were matched by that of "thinking on your feet."

When Beier raises the possibility that the actor exhibits judgment as much as the thinker later in his essay, this has become a problem mostly because he is committed to the thesis that the account of the thinker's judgment in The Life of the Mind has replaced the more fledgling account of the actor's judgment in The Human Condition. Like Beier's puzzled reaction to Arendt's neglect of Aristotle's treatment of political judgment as phronesis/ prudentia in the later works on judgment, this seem to me little more than a matter of shifted emphasis. Far from neglecting Aristotle in her full accounting of judgment, it seems to me she split the difference with a more Aristotelian account in The Human Condition and a more Kantian one to come in Life of the Mind. 

Thus, while it is true that Arendt conjoins judgment to understanding in her later work, it is no less true that the same judgment is conjoined to the action which preoccupies her earlier work. Recall that in The Human Condition Arendt proposed that the self is unavailable to reflection but is disclosed in and through public appearance, an absence made present in the legible responsiveness to the self's proffered acts/ judgments toward others in the politics of the vita activa. We depend for our existence not only on the sociality of practical collaboration but of inter-personal recognition: We do, therefore I am. This seems to me a complement to the making-present of absent others on which understandings/ judgments depend in the solitude of the vita contemplativa which Beier mentions to such effect. But to me, again, this gives us reasons instead to think the "early" and "late" characterizations of judgment actually make a coherent case together the force of which is completely undermined by treating them as the supplanting of one by another.
Judgment substantiates the effort to understand the world and materializes the performance of the act in the world. This is not to deny the differences in the indispensable work of judgment in the registers of thought and action, but to insist that their relation matters more than their distinction. While the distinction suggests itself to analysis, the relation impresses upon us as it is lived. There is no doubt that there was a difference between the Arendtian judgment of totalitarian criminality that impelled her early on into responsible activism and the isolating firestorm of judgment occasioned by her effort to understand an exemplary totalitarian criminal Eichmann later on, but it was the lived continuity of judgment's indispensability to the reconciliations of plural stakeholders in the world she shared as well as her reconciliation to the world so made that matters in Arendt's full accounting of the political and her place in it.

In section thirty-three of The Human Condition, "Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive," Arendt provides a rather stunning and never-repeated map of the conceptual terrain of the political, in which she proposes that the products of worldly work redeem the impasse of meaningless metabolic cyclicality in labor, and then the interminable, unpredictable release of actions into the made world redeem the impasse of meaningless instrumental/ causal cyclicality in work, and then that miraculous acts of forgiveness may redeem the impasse of meaningless revengeful cyclicality arising from the risks and costs of action's unpredictability. The apparent shift in emphasis accorded judgment in Arendt's later thinking included an elaboration of the idea that in the extreme impasse of totalitarian tyranny the reflection of the solitary thinker of the vita contemplativa might come to assume in its non-conformism the character of an action of resistance in the vita activa, that a present public might be re-opened to futurity in the making-present of retrospective reflection itself.

Beier does remark on Arendt's later thesis that the thinker may redeem the actor undone by the deeds of tyranny, but his writing in these passages are strangely ambivalent. He suggests that Arendt never quite "faces up" to the radical contingency implied in her account of redemptions that Hans Jonas exposed in a public exchange Beier recounts, and much the same point recurs when he brings up Habermas' criticism a few pages later that Arendt defends opinion to the cost of reason. For me, all this is simply confirmation that the rhetorical account of judgment in the early Arendt is not jettisoned for the later formulations of contemplative judgment in the first place. Although Arendt's writing is full of portentious pronouncements about the rupture of tradition, the dying of the light of the past to illuminate the present, the breaking of Ariadne's thread, and so on, it honestly seems to me that Arendt assumes an almost Rortyan insouciance at the End of Philosophy, altogether untroubled (or at any rate refusing all ressentiment) by the resumption of rhetoric in the eclipse of philosophical pretensions, happy to take up instead a Nietzschean Gay Science as its successor. It is well known that Arendt insistently refused the label "philosopher" and preferred to be known as a political theorist or political thinker instead, after all.

My reference to Nietzsche here is far from idle. Although I am not sure that Beier (or for that matter Arendt herself) read Nietzsche quite the same way I do, I agree that the work of Nietzsche resonates in Arendt's eventual accounting of the political quite as much or even more than Aristotle or Kant do. What Beier seems to me to treat as the almost incidental politically redemptive work of thinking-judgment in emergencies, I would describe instead as synecdochic of the work of judgment in the abiding emergency of history.

In his early, conspicuously sophistical On Truth and the Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Nietzsche distinguishes the rational one of prudential affairs and the intuitive one of speculative artistry, and declares that the rational one who disdains the intuitive risks inelegance to the point of stupidity while the intuitive one who disdains the rational risks insanity. Both are deceived. He recommends a re-enchantment of the world, a polytheistic investment of the literal furniture of the world with their ineradicable susceptibility to re-figuration as the terrain on which the co-construction and re-negotiations of the rational and the intuitive are facilitated. And of course such a polytheism demands the death of the monotheistic judeochrislamic God of the Book -- the God that Jonas and the Book that Habermas would trouble Arendt with -- indeed the putrefying corpse of such a dead god could be the most fertile field in which polytheistic poiesis might flourish.

The general contours of this Nietzschean proposal recur throughout his work right up to Ecce Homo, culminating in the formulation of the eternal return as the abiding sublimity of the slippage of world and word demanding a truth-telling as tragic affirmation and in stylish self-creation. The ineradicable ontology of refiguration imposes the inescapable responsibility of resignification for human beings. Arendt's latter formulations on judgment complete (or, even in their incomplete form, enormously enrich) the account of the vita activa elaborated in The Human Condition and re-affirm even in a work entitled The Life of the Mind a life-long emphasis on the active life of worldly affairs and judgments over the philosophical contemptus mundi. If we recall that original title of the early Vita Activa and recall the proper translation of the later Vita Contemplativa, then we might think the true work for the title The Human Condition subsumes both these early and later volumes. The redemptions of labor in work, work in action, action in forgiveness (itself an action), like the redemptions of thought in agency, will in judgment, judgment in historical struggle all materialize dimensions of freedom as pleasures necessary to the life proper to humanity. These pleasures vouchsafe Arendt's own Nietzschean project of post-philosophical truth-telling as affirmations of meaning in the tragic face of finitude. For Arendt, all judgment is beset by emergency.

But Arendt's amor mundi is not quite Nietzsche's amor fati, hers is not his perverse declaration of love for the condition of contingency itself but for the world in which we would make a home in the scrum of history. Politics is the domain of both freedom and responsibility, and the redemptive pleasures of freedom delineated in Arendt's early accounts of doing and later of accounts of thinking are incomplete until we recall the injunction with which the Prologue to The Human Condition ends (which remains apt even when we treat this as the title encompassing the projects of both the early and later volumes): that we also "think what we are doing." The pleasurably emancipatory responsivenesses to our peers and to the world we are making and have made in doing and thinking open onto the responsibilities to our peers and to the world we are making and have made in thinking what we are doing.

To understand the uniquely isolating, de-politicizing, world-destroying character of totalitarian tyranny was the point of departure and abiding touchstone for the thinking of both Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, as the organized criminality of colonial occupation and administration understood on much the same terms was the point of departure and abiding touchstone for the thinking of Frantz Fanon. The original published title of The Origins of Totalitarianism was The Burden of Our Time, and that "our" included her in a way that it no longer can for us. Our burdens are different ones, the emergence of the planet from the ruins of the postwar globe is neither the "earth" as Arendt understood it, exactly, nor the world from which she distinguished it, but a different world. What Arendt understood as "The Crisis in Culture" seems to us instead the occasion for a necessary critique of patriarchal and plutocratic violence as we assume the new worldly responsiveness and responsibilities of polyculture. Indeed, the putrefying corpse of such a dead culture could be the most fertile field in which the sustainable democratizing worldmaking of planetary polyculture might flourish.

1 comment:

Dale Carrico said...

The meaningless cyclicality reiterated in my paraphrase of Arendt's map might be provocatively read through Lacanian drive, but saying so would have taken me out of my topic.

As is, this whole post is just the first of a few Arendtian elaborations to come the occasion for which is my conversation with Michael Sacasas, who has asked me a simple question in the Moot. I have not yet answered his questions so simply, because my efforts to do so keep getting me mucked in a host of related readings/questions that I keep telling myself provide an indispensable context for my answer, but which probably are just a register of my obsessiveness.

And so, I suppose, one might say we circle back to Lacan.