Category: political theory

Anticolonial Aesthetics (2)

Here’s the question that J. Daniel Elam’s book (World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics [Fordham University Press, 2021]) poses in stark terms: How to live in an insufferable present?  One answer is to work as a revolutionary or as a reformer to create a future that is better than this present.  That, we might say, is the traditional answer—and, as Elam is at pains to show, that answer is tied to a package of assumptions that he calls “liberal.”  I, of course, would quarrel with using the term “liberal” in that way.  But that’s irrelevant at the moment.  Let’s instead just identify the key features of the package: an investment in effective action, understood as the ability to envision something and then act in ways that bring that vision into existence.  Such a model of effective action is going to emphasize the will (hence a certain model of the controlled self dedicated to a coherent “project”), along with rational planning, and the capacity to command resources (both of human labor and of required materials).  In sum, a celebration and enactment of “mastery,” of shaping the world to fit one’s vision of what the world should be.  For Elam, mastery leads, just about inevitably, to tyranny.  The present is laid waste, is sacrificed, in the name of the future—a future that never arrives.

In response, Elam wants to articulate a politics that does not bank (and the word “bank” is particularly apposite here, with its image of delaying present gratification in favor of future returns on investment) on any future at all.  This politics eschews utopian visions, even visions of reform, declaring them “sweet cheats” that devastate the present while never delivering the promised future.  To that extent, Elam is seeking the same golden calf I have been pursuing: a non-sacrificial politics, ways of being in the world with others (human and non-human) that don’t require victims. 

But there is a catch.  The present is itself unliveable, insufferable.  Completely and utterly.  Back to the affirmation issue.  What does it mean to live in a present that cannot be affirmed, that is a continual affront to every value and desire one holds dear—and to live in that present with no hope that the future will be any better.  To be blocked on all sides.  No exit.  Just a succession of present moments all as bad as this one.

It seems inevitable under such circumstances that the search will begin for “lines of flight.”  It is unimaginable (unless one sinks into the utter torpor of despair) that nothing will be done in an attempt to meliorate the situation.  Even if only in fantasy.  Shamed by the cruelty of American society and the puerility of American politics, I dream of moving to Canada.  I don’t do it, but the idea that an escape is possible offers some small consolation, some inkling that the present doesn’t have to continue utterly unchanged. 

The activists Elam discusses in his book are just that: activists.  They keep moving, keep acting, even though all ways forward are blocked.  What do they do, how do they live?  What choices do they make in a world that has denied them any meaningful freedom—if we take freedom to name the ability to make a choice and to act on that choice.  Elam downplays the political acts that these Indian activists performed.  That’s probably a weakness in his book.  But this downplaying has two functions: one, to starkly dramatize his central question of what to do when the future is foreclosed, and two, to allow him to highlight an alternative politics, a politics that is not oriented to actions designed to create a future.  A politics of living in the insufferable present, a politics “in the meantime” (3).

It is a politics precisely because it seeks an alternative to the regimes of mastery.  This politics turns its back on (even at times explicitly renounces and refutes) the marshalling of resources that yields the tyrannies of most political projects, including colonialism.  Against the command and utilize structure of efforts to produce a future, this politics aims for egalitarian moments of collective togetherness that produce nothing, that offer a fleeting experience of sociality for its own sake.  The model feels aestheticist because of this focus on the non-utilitarian, on that which is done for its own sake.  George Simmel thought of “sociability” in these terms.  Simmel was thinking about the person who loves to throw a good party (Mrs. Dalloway).  There is no thought of what is to be gained by throwing the party; it has no aim other than of bringing people together.  Mrs. Dalloway tells us that she throws her parties “for life,” as a tribute to life.  She has a “gift”—and fights back against those who consider calling her “a perfect hostess” is a sneer.  The present is all—although death does come to her party when she learns of Septimus’s suicide.  The party is not a denial of death, but a way of attending to the preciousness of each moment in the face of that inevitable future death.  Death—and other imagined futures that are less inevitable—do not justify sacrificing the present.

What practices embody this politics of the present? Elam’s quartet—Lala Har Dayal, B. R. Ambedkar, M. K. Gandhi, and Baghat Singh—didn’t throw a lot of parties.  What they did do, a lot, was read and write. Hence my unjust crack in my last post that when the going gets tough, the tough pick up a book.  Reading is certainly a line of flight, a way to escape the insufferable present into another place.  There is an imperative need to envision an elsewhere—be it Canada, a utopian future, or the world offered by a book—when present circumstances are soul- and life-destroying.  And Elam’s book brings home just how bookish radicals on the left are.  Even Stalin had pretensions to being a scholar.  Most revolutionaries read voraciously—and their revolutionary convictions stemmed almost as much from their reading as from their direct experiences of oppression and injustice.

Elam, however, is not interested in the convictions that underwrite one’s disgust with the present.  Rather—and this is his book’s greatest strength—he develops a particular ethos of reading.  It is not the only possible way to understand the practice of reading, but it is a way that he argues (persuasively) is shared by philology and anticolonial politics in the period between the two World Wars of the twentieth century.  Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis stands for Elam (as it did for Edward Said) as the exemplary text of a philological practice of reading that announces its own incompleteness, inadequacy, and non-totalizing, fragmentary forays into interpreting a world and its texts.  That world, those books, will always exceed any effort to comprehend it, so that the individual philologist is always already engaged in a collective project, contributing his or her mite, to a project that aims not so much at achieving comprehension (in every sense of that word) as at creating fellowship (“fraternity” in the work of B. R. Ambedkar) through the ongoing conversation.  We are all readers together, struggling to parse a difficult text, occupants of a kind of Borgesian library where the effort to understand does not generate despair and competition, but fellow feeling, cooperation, and (perhaps) delight in the world’s endless intricacies (good and bad).

One concrete form this practice of reading takes is the commonplace book (103-105).  As distinct even from the anthology (which is aggressively curated and annotated by its editors), the commonplace book simply presents snippets one by one in an egalitarian jumble.  We can identify the one who has compiled the commonplace book, but he or she is certainly not an author and only a very minimalist editor.  The compiler is assembling a fellowship—and joining its ranks.  Elam sees such work as “the assertion of one’s own radical inconsequentiality, commonness, and accessibility” (105).

And then proceeds to explain why this self-abnegation of the reader is political.

“An ethics rooted in inconsequence refuses future possible outcomes in favor of an investment in the secular (that is, non-transcendent) present.  For Leela Gandhi [from whom Elam derives his attention to “inconsequence’], this is a political gesture: “we democratize our consciousness by sacrificing our telos,” she notes.  If inconsequentialism names “ a force of interruption in the worldly drama of repetition, reproduction, and duplication, so that newness might reenter the world,” inconsequentialist reading  is the practice of a revolutionary anti-authorial recalcitrance that both inaugurates and is made possible by a certain worldly commitment to the common, the impossible, and the ephemeral present” (105).

A radical politics of renunciation.  The list of what is renounced is long: hope for a better future, faith in one’s self as an effective actor, surrender to the myriad voices of a multitudinous world, and acceptance (even affirmation?) of the massive territory of the impossible.  But where, Elam and Leela Gandhi ask, has our allegiance to schemes for betterment gotten us: just the deadly repetitions yielded by our efforts at mastery.

Mine is not a renouncing temperament.  And it is all too easy to sneer at the Western academics espousing renunciation even as they carefully build their CVs.  But Elam’s book brought home to me, in the starkest terms, the issue of how one lives (day to day in the most mundane ways) in a present one despises yet cannot escape.  The answer, at least for me if I am honest (and I suspect my case is not so different from many others), is that I read and write “against the day” since few other outlets for protest or action are open to me.  I do contribute to political causes (what Adrienne Rich called “checkbook activism”) and attend the odd protest or two. I agonize over the daily news, but somehow feel it a duty to keep up even while it does my spirits or the larger society no good. And I take lots of “moral holidays.”  The term is from William James—and he did not mean it negatively.  He simply wanted to note that all of us give ourselves breathers; we take a respite from worrying about or even suffering from the state of the world.  We go on a picnic and even manage not to feel in the least bit guilty about it.

For me, reading is very often one of those moral holidays.  It is not political in the ways that Elam describes.  But it is true that reading can offer the deep consolation of learning that there are others who feel as I do about the current state of things, and who have ways of articulating or explaining our mess that resonate with me.  Edmund White has written movingly about how his reading of Proust and Genet during his Ohio boyhood allowed him to understand there was not only nothing wrong with him as a homosexual, but that there was a world, a fellowship, out there that he could join.  Reading Hardy, Joyce, and Woolf as a teenager had the same effect on me; there was a world beyond the suburban desert of my hometown—and I was going to leave and join that world. 

The point is that reading is often very solitary—and an escape from one’s surroundings.  But that reading can also intimate that an “elsewhere” exists—and is already occupied by those one would like to have as fellows.  The politics therein focuses on the imagined “republic of letters,” or the “world literature” referenced in Elam’s title.  No matter that countless tales of disillusionment reveal that world to be petty, cutting, and back-biting once achieved.  In the space of reading, the fleeting utopian fellowship of equals that Elam invokes offers its escape.  I still think turning that image into a politics requires a way to get from here to there.  But it is, of course, just that kind of calculation that Elam rejects.  So: is reading just a “moral holiday” if we don’t try to make its egalitarian allurements, its invitation to join a world we want to belong to, “real”?  Are we to leave those awakened desires in the world of fiction, accepting they are impossible to realize in the non-fictional world?

A short digression: worth thinking about the ways in which the internet allows every sub-community discover that it has it adherents.  White, the isolated gay Ohioan, finds his similars through books.  Now deeply devoted fans of the Dick van Dyke Show discover they are not alone—and form chat rooms followed up by conventions.  No avocation is too obscure or too outré to not have its quorum.

Elam is striving to articulate an anticolonial politics.  On the one hand, that politics is trying to escape the massive damage that has been done by fantasies/practices of mastery and the infinite demands of productivity, accumulation, and the quest for profit.  On the other hand, he is trying to imagine a politics that deals with the ethical question of how to live in a world that refutes our most basic desires for justice, an end to suffering,  and love between one human and another. 

That second, ethical, question—how to live—can be put in stark existential terms that make it seem less political and more just a matter of responding to the human condition.  Elam hits that existential bedrock in the following passage:

“What does it mean to read in the face of death? What does it mean to read without seeking mastery or expertise?  What does it mean, therefore, to read without consequence?” (104). 

Most academics read in order to have fodder for their own writing.  They rarely read without thinking about how what they are reading is going to drive their own production of a new text.  Writers are harvesters from the books they read.  But there is a limit, there is an impossible future: namely the future of one continuing to live and write without end.  No one gets to cheat death—everything we might do to cheat death is inconsequential, cannot have the consequences those actions aim toward. 

So maybe one fundamental political question to ask is: how do we live together on this earth in face of the fact that the future for every single one of us is foreclosed?  If we accept our radical lack of mastery in the face of death, does that have consequences for how we should arrange our relations to one another and to the world we inhabit?  What would follow (and this is the burden of much of Judith Butler’s recent work) is we accepted our radical equality in this matter of dying (instead of seeing some people as less consequential, as more dispensable, as more acceptable victims of mortality)? I am trying to register here why Elam’s book moved me so deeply.  It goes against almost all of my instincts, but opening myself to his eloquent meditations, leads me to seeing how the pretension to mastery is just that: a pretension.  Elam adds that it is a pretension that only generates misery—in the short and the long runs.  So: can we abandon that pretension?  What does it look like to abandon it?  And what practices and politics follow if we succeed in this act or renunciation?  There are paradoxes here, to be sure, since to talk of “acts” and what “follows” them as I do in my last sentence returns us to the ground of the consequences of doing things, but Elam’s book has convinced me that the difficulties of thinking through impossibility and non-mastery should not short circuit the effort to do so

Anticolonial Aesthetics and a Politics of the Impossible

I want to register some reactions to J. Daniel Elam’s compelling World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics (Fordham University Press, 2021).

Elam begins form a position almost exactly identical to that of Christina Sharpe—the position of those whose lives are not only not protected by the state, but marked by the state for wretchedness unto death.

“Politics can only be ‘the art of the possible’ for those whose lives are secured by the state, or, in other words, only for those who can confidently know that they will live to see the ‘possible’ attained.  Those whose lives are not guaranteed by the state, or those whose lives the state actively expects to end, cannot afford the luxury of such politics.  The ‘wretched of the earth’ require, instead, a politics of the impossible.  This politics requires imagining and foregrounding, in the face of imminent or certain death, a politics not accountable to regimes of ‘success,’ ‘sustainability,’ or ‘attainability,’ but rather to ‘the meantime’: the time being, the passing moment, and the present” (2-3).

“This is an unsustainable and inconsequential politics.  It is a radical politics of the present. . . . Despair and nihilism are insufficient for an anticolonial politics, but they guard against the equally unsatisfactory politics of optimism and hope.  Anticolonialism is, in this final instance, a project of locating fleeting moments of egalitarian politics in the relative opacity of an unguaranteed future” (3).

In a memorable phrase, Elam writes of recuperating “an anti-nihilist non-futurity”(5)—connected to the attempt “to create a language sufficient to imagine political collectivities motivated by the fact of their current impossibility.  They [anticolonial writers] invented aesthetic forms necessary to imagine a worldwide egalitarianism rooted in the unlikelihood of any future at all” (4).

My first response is to note how closely this tracks Walter Pater’s aestheticism.  Many of the key themes of the conclusion to The Renaissance are reprised here: the focus on fleeting moments, the insistence on the present since the future only brings death, the rejection of the utilitarian calculi that measure the worth of the present in terms of its “fruits,” in the things that effort in the present will make possible, will bring into existence.  Pater’s radical atomism moves toward severing any connection between one moment and another—a dissolution that also unravels the self (which is revealed as an essentially temporal construct, built upon a constructed continuity between past and present, thus creating an entity, an identity, that can be carried into the future.)  Elam follows a similar path when he considers Gandhi’s attempts “to abandon both mastery and self”(73), and recommends “the disavowal of the self-knowing self,” in favor of “the tentative assertion ‘that the something that [one is] should be openly expressed as provisional, revocable, insignificant, inessential, in a word, irrelevant’”(125; italics and brackets in original; the quote is, I think, from Roland Barthes, although Elam’s footnote doesn’t make that absolutely clear.)

To note the similarities to Pater is not to belittle Elam’s project.  My intent, rather, is to clarify the stakes.  The echo here, I think, is the Adorno and Horkheimer of The Dialectic of Enlightenment.  The target is the madness of productivity.  Everything must be turned to account.  Everything we do is in order to achieve something else.  Nothing is done for its own sake.  Elam’s experiment is to ponder—with the help of a series of anticolonial writers—what it would mean to embrace the “inconsequential,” to step aside from the pressure, the demand, to produce a future out of the miseries of the present.  The claim—and here the similarities are to the contemporary work of Fred Moten, David Graeber, and Jack Halberstam among others—is that the effort to produce that better future only guarantees making the present miserable.  It is the very logics of mastery and productivity that render life in the here and now unbearable.  In his most expansive moments, it is that logic of exploiting the present for the future profits it can secure that is the hallmark of colonialism.  To be anticolonial is not simply to oust the European colonial power; the fully anticolonial must overthrow the extractive processes that strip-mine life right now.  It is regimes of accumulation, laying up stores for the future, that must be overcome.

Except that it can’t be overcome—or, at least, won’t be overcome in your lifetime or mine.  Faced with that impossibility, what kind of politics makes sense?  Elam proposes an inconsequential politics, one that aims (only) for “fleeting moments” of egalitarian commonality.  Even putting it that way makes it too utilitarian.  Elam speaks of a non-teleological politics, which starts to look something like Foucault’s “care of the self,” except with a more collective resonance.  Certainly in Graeber and Moten, the call is for something like “being the change you want to see in the world” (the famous charge that Gandhi lays on us).  Elam ponders the possibility (which he derives from Fanon) of “stopping and leaving” (pp. 117-125), of refusing to play the utilitarian game.  Why accept the madness and despair the colonial regime inflicts?  Refuse participation in its mad push for ever more productivity—a push that destroys life in all its forms, human and non-human. 

I want, today, to register all my worries about an inconsequential politics.  But I will in my next post concentrate on the strengths of Elam’s case—and on the specifics of the practices he thinks embody the politics of the impossible, of the meantime, that he advocates.

Elam is way too smart to believe that many people have the option of stopping and leaving.  There is “no escape” (124-125) for the vast majority.  That’s why his is a politics of the impossible.  Which is a nice intellectual legerdemain, but of no consolation (dare I say of “no use”) to those suffering in the present.  To be (most likely) over romantic about it, I am surprised that Elam doesn’t turn to what Hannah Arendt called “the lost treasure of revolution.”  Arendt was referring to the ways in which participation in collective struggle is, itself, a heady and deeply satisfying experience.  And it is so satisfying in large part because it gives individuals the kind of immersion in a collective project that is seldom afforded to us.  In short, revolutionary struggle does not have to succeed to prove meaningful.  But it does have to be oriented to a continual protest against and articulation of the injustices of the existing socio-political structures. For Elam’s purposes, it provides that experience of egalitarian collectivity that he treasures

Elam’s book notably never uses the terms “justice” or “power.”  Maybe that’s because “justice” and “power” are consequentialist in their focus on outcomes.  But I suspect—and here is where I really ground my reservations about a politics of the impossible—it is because politics is always disappointing.  No political effort ever achieves it goals in a perfect, non-compromised fashion.  When full-scaled utopia (the overthrow of all productivity, all sacrifice of the present in order to achieve something in the future) is your stated desire, then it follows inevitably that you will see the goal is impossible and opt for a politics of the impossible instead of the messy politics of the possible.  Your refusal to settle for half a loaf (social democracy instead of a complete dismantling of capitalism, to take one example) means you dream of an (impossible) escape from politics altogether.  Because justice can never be won once and for all, because it can only be secured imperfectly and temporarily by the endless fight against the forces that would withhold it, you want to walk away.  The continual mixture of defeat with (compromised and partial) victories is just too exhausting.  Better to go off (and here I am being really unfair to Elam as tomorrow’s post will show) and read a book instead.

All of this connects to the (only implied in Elam’s book) alignment of power with oppression.  But power can also refer to the capacity to get something done—and point us toward the things that individual could never accomplish on their own, but can accomplish when part of a collective.  We are back to the “lost treasure.”  Feeling powerless in the face of established institutions, routines, and socio-economic demands is the common lot in today’s world (and, undoubtedly, in every society throughout human time).  That’s why experiences of power, of being able to participate in doing something that moves (however imperfectly) toward its goal, are so exhilarating. The imagined and virtual collectivities that Elam celebrates, even as he acknowledges they are “ephemeral and fleeting” (14), look like a simulacrum of what the heart really desires. 

In short, this is a politics of despair, a politics that pursues a “diminished thing” (the Robert Frost poem I keep coming back to) because it cannot see a path to what it truly desires.  Of course, Elam explicitly acknowledges that he is describing a politics of despair.  The question on the table is how to live under terrible conditions, ones that make it impossible to live an affirmable life.  That’s the strength of his book—and of Moten’s work (to take one other example).  And that’s the question—how to live—that I will take up tomorrow.

But, first, let me summarize my objections.  There are two main planks, both of which might be seen as protests against the all-or-nothing position associated with the dream of revolutionary transformation.  First, capitalism, utilitarianism, colonialism, racism are all configured as monolithic totalities, not only entirely evil, but also viewed as coherent overarching wholes that must be felled tout court or not at all.  I am deeply influenced by Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism as We Know It on this score.  We need analyses that abandon totalized characterizations of large abstractions in favor of examination of varied practices on the ground.  To paint all utilitarian thinking and effort as oppressive means, presumably, that the writing of books is as soul-destroying as working in a coal mine. 

Admittedly, when it comes to racism and colonialism, I am not inclined to parse out certain practices that are acceptable or (even) less pernicious.  But do we really have to align colonialism with utilitarian thinking—and then say we have only eradicated colonialism when we have rendered the world free of the tyranny of consequentialism?  When it comes to racism, once we posit that racism is constitutive of American society—and that racism in the US will only be overcome when the whole social order is dissolved—we not only should expect a fight to the death (who is going to acquiesce in the complete collapse of society?), but also (and more much importantly in my view) ignore and fail to recognize as resources the vocabulary of rights and equality built into the American political order—a vocabulary that blacks (and others) have been able to mobilize to their benefit.  In short, American racism exists alongside other components of “Americanism” in ways that belie seeing American society as monolithically racist–or as lacking any internal resources, traditions, or institutions that can be used to fight racism. 

Working the seams is, I am arguing, a more realistic politics than constructing (theoretically) an undifferentiated, non-contradictory, monolith which can then only be dislodged (or even changed) by its complete dismantling.  I have also already said that this alternative politics is frustrating, endless, replete with partial victories, stinging defeats, and soul-wrenching compromises.  But it also offers joys of participation to those engaged in its multiple struggles.  The politics of despair, I am suggesting, comes from a demand for all or nothing—combined with the response that “I’ll take nothing” because I know that getting all is impossible.

Second, the problem with all or nothing thinking in that it locates the problem in “the system.”  The focus is on institutional fixes.  If we just get the design right, then all that messy political stuff will disappear.  Justice, equality, freedom will just flow automatically from the perfect machinery we have established.  (Marx offers a prime example of this kind of thinking.)  But what I am saying is that there is no escape from politics, from the endless need to negotiate among competing interests, competing visions of what is desirable, and also (crucially) between necessary trade-offs among goods.  There are always going to be people trying to game the system (no matter what the system is), but there is also the intractable fact that securing one good must in many cases require sacrificing another good—and there have to be political processes to handle disputes over what sacrifices to make.  The left is all too prone to an unrealistic faith in mechanisms, in design. 

This last way of thinking, I should add, is not offered in any form in Elam’s work.  Instead, his politics of the impossible is addressed to a different critique of revolutionary practice and theory.  Namely, he is concerned that the means of revolution (violence justified by its ends, for one example) or its aims (to gain power in state form, to achieve sovereignty) will doom any successful revolution to merely replicate (even if in somewhat different forms) the oppressions of the prior regime.  If colonialism is characterized by a logic of mastery, of consequential action, then colonialism is not overcome when the European occupier leaves.  The post-colonial nation state, all too often (and inevitably it would seem in this despairing politics), offers new versions of the assaults on life that characterized the colonial period.  Postcolonialism is a social and political condition that has not yet been achieved, no matter who sits in the halls of government.

A good place to end for today because it points to one of the many strengths in Elam’s book.  He is addressing real dilemmas: how to live in an unjust present? How to move us from that present to a future that will not merely reproduce the oppressions of today?  There is a good case to be made—and he makes it—that the traditional politics of struggle and revolution has been unable to deliver on its promises—and so a new kind of politics must be imagined and practiced.  And there is surely a case to be made that sacrificing lives in the present in the name of a better future that is not going to be achieved (that is impossible to achieve?) is madness and unjustifiable.  (We just need to think of Stalin and Mao to see just how mad—and how evil—such sacrifices are.)  So how to live “in the meantime” is an urgent question.  That part of me hates ceding power to the bad actors, hates what looks like the quietism of letting the other side win, doesn’t mean that Elam is wrong.  I just can’t stop asking why the other side’s world (despite its self-destructive insanity, measured in the toll it takes on human and non-human life) is “possible” while our (the left’s) utopian visions are “impossible.”  

Arendt Contra “Life”

Hannah Arendt famously insisted that any politics that attended to the demands of “life” was doomed to descend into factional strife.  How to understand her argument on these matters has troubled her readers ever since she first articulated this view in 1957’s The Human Condition and, more forcefully, in 1962’s On Revolution. It doesn’t help matters that the critique of a life-based politics in the former book is replaced (augmented) by a differently inflected argument in On Revolution: namely, that politics must avoid addressing “the social question.”  Just how Arendt’s disdain for “the social” connects to her insistence that “life” should never be the principal motive for “action” is hard to parse.

Let me start with life.  Arendt’s argument (derived from Aristotle in ways that resonate with Agamben’s adoption of the distinction between “bios”—bare life—and “zoe”—a cultivated life) is that life belongs to the realm of “necessity.”  What is needed to sustain life (food, shelter, etc.) must be produced and consumed.  The daily round of that production and consumption is inescapable—but the very opposite of freedom. 

Politics exists in order to provide freedom, to provide a space for action that is not tied to necessity.  As countless readers have pointed out, Aristotle’s polity relies on slaves to do the life-sustaining work tied to necessity—and Arendt seems nowhere more mandarin than in her contempt for that work.  While it is going too far to say that she endorses slavery, there is more than a little of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in Arendt.  She seems at times to accept that the price of freedom, the price of escaping slavery, is an heroic, aristocratic disdain for life that allows the master to achieve his (it’s almost always a “he”) position of mastery in the life/death struggle that creates slavery in the Hegelian story.  Those tied to “life” are slavish in disposition; they have bargained away their freedom because they have valued life too highly—have, in fact, taken life (not freedom or mastery) as the highest (perhaps even the sole) value.  This contempt gets carried over into Arendt’s deeply negative views of “the masses.” 

Arendt’s disdain for “life” has often been seen as a critique of bourgeois sensibility.  The bourgeoisie is focused on “getting and spending” which it deems “private”—and is, consequently, uninterested in politics.  That’s one way of interpreting Arendt’s lament that politics is in danger of disappearing altogether in the modern world.  In a liberal society, all the focus is on “private” pursuits—the religion of personal salvation, economic pursuits, family and friends.  It is reductive, but not altogether inaccurate, to link Arendt to figures like Tocqueville who lament the loss of an aristocratic focus on “honor” even as they both admit that aristocratic virtues are lost forever.  If the triumph of “life” is to be overcome, it won’t be through a revival of either Aristotle’s or Machiavelli’s worlds. 

Arendt’s prescription (especially in The Human Condition) appears to be the attempt to substitute amor mundi (a love of the world) for the love of life.  My student Martin Caver wrote a superb dissertation on the concept of amor mundi in Arendt—and had to contend mightily with how slippery and vague that notion is in her work.  Pushed into thinking about this all again by Matt Taylor’s essay—and by a subsequent email he wrote to me in response to my post on his essay—here is how I would pose the contrast world/life today.

The problem with “life” from Arendt’s point-of-view is that life is monolithic.  Its demands appear to be everywhere the same: sustenance.  To maintain a life is a repetitive grind that Arendt depicts as a relentless “process” that never allows for individuation.  There are no distinctions within life.  Every living thing is the same in terms of possessing what we can call “bare life.”  Paradoxically, life renders everyone the same even as it also renders everyone selfish. Unlike politics, which for Arendt offers the possibility of individuation, selfishness just makes everyone alike. The bourgeois self is focused on “getting his”—which is why “life” is antithetical to amor mundi.  We humans are in a sorry condition unless we can generate some care (think of Heidegger on Sorge at this point) for the world that we share.  When everyone is pursuing only his own interest, the world falls apart. (Certainly sounds like a pretty good description/diagnosis of American society in 2020.)

What is this “world” that Arendt calls us to love?  She insists that it is the fact of “plurality” (the fact that we are with others on this planet) and that it is what lies “between” the various actors who inhabit it.  The modern retreat into the private is making the world recede.  We no longer (at least as intensely) live and act together in a shared world, in a public space.  That public space is the scene of politics for Arendt.  And politics is where one distinguishes oneself (i.e. where one can achieve a distinctive identity).  Politics is also where the world is produced through “acting in concert.”  The notion here (although Arendt never articulates it in this way and is way too vague about the particulars of “acting in concert”) is that a public space is created and maintained by the interactions of people within that space—just as a language is created and maintained by people using it to communicate.  The ongoing health and existence of the language is a beneficial, but not directly intended, by-product of its daily use by a community of speakers.  Our common world is similarly produced.

Love of that world thus seems to mean two things: caring for its upkeep, it preservation, and a taste, even a love, for plurality.  I must cherish the fact that it is “men,” not just me, who constitute this world.  In Iris Murdoch’s formulation: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

To understand Arendt’s critique of “life” in these terms leads almost too smoothly into her work of Eichmann and, then, to The Life of the Mind.  To be thoughtless (as Arendt accuses Eichmann of being) is precisely to be incapable of comprehending otherness, that fact that “something other than oneself is real.”  Selfishness is thoughtless, a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp the fact of plurality in its full significance.  Soul-blindness. And she reads Eichmann’s blindness in terms of his being entirely focused on climbing the ladder in the bureaucracy within which he works.  That’s why his evil is “banal.”  It’s the product of his daily round of making his way, not a product of any deeply-held convictions or ideology.  He was, in her view, quite literally just doing his job with an eye toward promotion, without any conception of how his actions were effecting other people.  (Whether this is a plausible reading of Eichmann is neither here nor there for the more general argument that the modern mind-set, along with the  bureaucracies—among which we must count large corporations—in which so many moderns are embedded, generates soul-blindness, the thoughtless inability to see the consequences of one’s actions apart from how those actions contribute to one’s “getting ahead.”)

No wonder, then, that Arendt’s grasps onto the passage in the Critique of Judgment where Kant calls for “enlarged thinking”—and ties judgment to the capacity to see something from the other’s point of view.  I must go “visiting,” Arendt says, in order to make a judgment.  The person who is focused solely on gaining a “good life” for himself will never encounter “the world,” never grasp plurality.

The problem comes when the critique of “life” in The Human Condition is paired with a critique of “the social”—and that problem becomes a crisis when the full implications of banning the social from politics are articulated in On Revolution.  Even Arendt’s most adept readers—Seyla Benhabib, Bonnie Honig, Hanna Pitkin—barely try to defend her position at this juncture.  Bluntly put, Arendt says that the polity should never attempt to address or alleviate poverty or material inequities.  The necessities of life—and how to secure them—should never be seen as a matter appropriate to politics.  To make that mistake is simply to make politics itself impossible while leading to endless strife. 

The puzzle has always been how a thinker of Arendt’s power could have been so blind, so stupid, so thoughtless (she is never so close to her caricature of Eichmann as at this point) on this score.  How could she think 1) that banishing the endless strife over material resources to “the social” somehow solves the problem of that strife, and 2) that “politics” could somehow (by fiat?) be separated from allocation of resources (where those resources include power and status as well as material goods)?  I can only suspect that she harbors the old aristocratic disdain of “trade” and imagines she can erect of field of contention where only distinction, honor, and virtuosity are at stake—and nothing so vulgar as monetary reward.  Arendt’s ideal politics are, after all, agonistic.  She is not against strife.  But she wants a “pure” strife focused exclusively on excellence, unsullied by irrelevant considerations of money or status.  She hates “society” because she deplores the standards by which it confers distinction.  No surprise that her politics seem so aesthetic—and that she goes to Kant’s Critique of Judgment to discover his politics.  What matters in the idealized aesthetic space is the quality of the performance—and nothing else. 

So the question Arendt poses for us is: Is it harmful to have this ideal of a practice (or practices) that are divorced (by whatever means are effective) from questions of material necessity and reward?  At a time when utilitarian considerations seem everywhere triumphant, the desire to carve out a protected space has a deep appeal.  Reduction of everything to what avails life (Ruskin’s formula) very quickly becomes translated into what can produce an income.  Various defenses of the university are predicated on fighting back against the utilitarian calculus.

But the danger of taking the anti-utilitarian line (the aestheticist position, if you will) is that it reinforces the bourgeois/classical liberal assertion that “the economic” is its own separate sphere—one that should be understood as “private.”  Arendt may be a sharp critic of bourgeois selfishness and how that selfishness diminishes what a life can be even as its blithely denies the necessities of life to others, but she seems to be reinforcing the liberal idea of “private enterprise.” 

It is not clear how (or where) economic activities exist at all in the “world” she wants us to love.  And we have ample evidence by now that leaving economics to themselves is not a formula for keeping the economic in its place, in preventing its colonizing other spheres of human activity.  Just the opposite.  Laissez-faire is a sure-fire formula for insuring that the economic swallows up everything else.  It accumulates power as relentlessly as it accumulates capital—and thus distorts every thing in the world.

In the realms of theory, then, Matt’s instinct that a monolithic, overarching concept like “life” would be better replaced by a pluralistic reckoning of the needs and desires of “living” seems promising.  The thought is that “life” requires (in order for it to be defined) a contrast with “not life” (the world fills that role in Arendt)—and thus to a designation of the enemies of life (or, in Arendt’s mirror image, to a denigration of “life” in favor of another value, amor mundi).  In either case, the logic leads to a desire to eliminate something because it threatens what is desired. 

The alternative path of pluralism disarms such categorical condemnations.  That path returns us to the “rough ground” (Wittgenstein) of tough judgments about what to do in particular cases where we have to attend to the particulars—and not think that generalized formulas are going to be of much (if any) use.  There are always going to be multiple goods and moral intuitions in play, with painful trade-offs, and messy compromises.  No overarching commitment or slogan—like “reverence for life”—is going to do the work. Similarly, we cannot successfully separate things into separate spheres—the aesthetic in that bin, the economic in another one, and politics in a third. It is just going to be messier than that even as we also struggle to prevent any one type of motive swamp the others.  Pluralism is about (among other things) giving multiple motives some room to operate.  Which is why I remain so attracted to some version of a universal basic income, some version of supplying the minimal resources required to “flourish” to all.  Only when the material necessities can be taken for granted because secured (not disdained because they are bestial or vulgar) can other motives take wing.

One can also expect that others will disagree with, castigate her for, the course of action she does pursue, the positions for which she advocates.  Plurality comes with a price—which is why it is hard to love.  And why thinkers keep imagining formulas that will enable our escape from it.