Hannah Arendt interviewed by Gunter Gaus

This is the video of Arendt’s 1964 interview with Gaus. There are many interesting moments here, including Arendt’s famous clarification that she is a political theorist and not a philosopher. She also goes into some personal details about her relationship to politics in the context of Weimar. But as someone who had been reading Arendt for years and yet saw very little footage of her, what I found just as fascinating are her mannerisms and tone.

A longer version of this interview was published in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954. Cut from the interview here is a discussion of The Human Condition, where Arendt discusses the meaning of “world” and the connection between philosophy and politics.


On Walter Benjamin

The life and work of Walter Benjamin were inseparable. In a century full of stories of displaced intellectuals, in the words of Brecht “changing our country/more often than our shoes,” Benjamin’s story still resonates the deepest. His fascination with the nature of time and how it affected lived experience made the circumstances of his death all the more tragic. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseille would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible.”

Arendt, Iran and Political Power

Continuing with the recent thread touching on the relationship between philosophy and politics, here is an Arendtian reading of Iran’s Green Movement. Although it has been almost a year since the green uprising against the Iranian regime, and far more news coming out of the country today focus on the ongoing nuclear controversy, it is important for us not to forget that a democratic movement has continuously been building in the country and also within the Iranian diaspora.

The non-violent and inclusively pluralist character of the Green Movement nicely characterizes what Arendt meant by ‘power’ and the idiosyncratic way she used that concept by contrasting it with violence. Although her understanding of power is not without fault, since by associating it with action she turns it into something that can’t be wielded and thereby ignores structural forms of power as oppression, it is still a remarkable take on the human ability to spontaneously generate a collective solidarity capable of accomplishing things no individual can.

As an aside, I think Arendt’s use of the concepts of action and power to describe human political engagement also indicates her deep indebtedness to phenomenology and to an Aristotelian form of praxis. Power, she tells us, is very similar to human action not only in the sense that it can accomplish change but also because it is ephemeral. It manifests itself when people act collectively, and disappears just as soon as they disperse. Like action, it is unpredictable and something public. Every “act” that I make is something I throw into the world that can have unpredictable consequences for me and everyone else. To act politically is to become involved in this perpetual exchange with people different from you but with whom you share and have to care for a common world.

On Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt

A great piece in The Nation about the intellectual connections between Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt. Arendt is a frequent topic on this blog and elsewhere, but Hilberg is a writer whose reputation has become somewhat obscured in recent years. This is puzzling considering that his book The Destruction of the European Jews was one of the first on the topic to appear in the West (and indeed went a great distance in shaping the Nazi crimes as The Holocaust in the modern consciousness.) The book was originally a dissertation that Hilberg prepared at Columbia under the supervision of Franz Neumann – he of the Frankfurt School and Behemoth fame, as well as the person who famously told Hilberg about his dissertation topic: “It’s your funeral.”

Meanwhile, Arendt’s own work on the subject, Eichmann in Jerusalem, appeared in 1963, two years after Hilberg’s book. It caused an international furor that doesn’t need to be recounted here. What’s interesting is that apparently Arendt’s indebtedness to Hilberg on this subject was much greater than she originally let on. Hilberg himself remained bitter at the fact that she did not give due credit to his research in Eichmann (perhaps further solidifying Arendt’s reputation as a less than meticulous scholar.) Hilberg himself, meanwhile, kept meticulous records of all the places where he thought Arendt borrowed from his work without proper citation, which amounted to some eighty transgressions in total. In the ironic end, neither ultimately came away satisfied with their work: Hilberg died with a constant sense of being underappreciated, while Arendt bristled at the rough reception her book received among the Jewish diaspora and stopped writing on the topic for the rest of her life.

the Holocaust in Europe