Voyou Désœuvré

One of the disadvantages of studying political theory in the US is the fact that Hannah Arendt is, rather inexplicably, taken very seriously. I never felt the slightest encouragement to read her before I moved here, but now I have to read her, and I rather wish I didn’t. Perhaps I’m missing her vital insights, but I’m too put off by her asinine methodology. What do you do with someone who can write:

Each of them, and again none more than Marx, found himself in the grip of certain genuine contradictions. It seems to lie in the nature of this matter that the most obvious solution of these contradictions, or rather the most obvious reason why these great authors should have remained unaware of them is their equation of work with labor, so that labor is endowed by them with certain faculties which only work possesses. This equation always leads into patent absurdities.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

So “patent absurdities” apparently follow from failing to respect a distinction Arendt invented about ten pages earlier, giving little justification of its validity and certainly no explanation as to why it might be relevant to Marx. I’m reminded of fundamentalist Christians, who insist that there is such a thing as a “literal” reading of the bible. This seems like an extraordinarily stupid faith in the fixed meaning of words, as if there is one set of concepts divorced from time and place, that Marx must have been working with the same concepts as Arendt. “The loneliness of the laborer qua laborer is usually overlooked…” Perhaps it’s not “overlooked”? Perhaps those who don’t think the laborer is “lonely” actually disagree with Arendt, and perhaps they disagree with her because she is wrong. Arendt seems incapable of thinking that someone might have a substantive disagreement with her; any divergence is explained by a failure to appreciate the timeless truths Arendt has so generously uncovered for us. This kind of narcissistic insulation from criticism is sometimes put forward as a fault of something called “Theory.” Unusually, this appears to actually apply in Arendt’s case (Arendt isn’t, as far as I know, generally considered part of the amorphous blob of Theory), along with other criticisms that get leveled at the same target: superficial engagements with texts; grand, content-free generalizations; a refusal to give reasons for any of her assertions. I’m a little shocked, actually; I can’t remember the last time I read a respected work which is as bad as The Human Condition.


  1. geo, 6:51 am, November 8, 2006

    man, i feel you, i been through that shit.

  2. Owen, 11:47 am, November 9, 2006

    The start of Zizek’s Did Someone say Totalitarianism (ie, the bit that’s actualy about totalitarianism) has a nice riff on this, that said word’s hegemony is indicated by everyone genuflecting at Arendt, whether psychoanalysists (depsite her hating Freud) Frankfurt Schoolies (despite her abhorrence of Adorno) etc etc…and that apparently in the 70s you could finish an argument by telling yr opponent ‘is’t your position somewhat like Arendt’s?’  heheheh.

  3. bat020, 7:40 am, November 13, 2006

    Well worth reading the first chapter of Badiou’s Metapolitics on the ideological significance of Arendt in the construction of “political philosophy”.

  4. bat020, 7:44 am, November 13, 2006

    Mind you, Arendt is a towering intellectual genius compared to today’s liberal “thinkers”.

  5. voyou, 5:07 pm, November 14, 2006

    That’s true, bat. Her vague hand-waving gestures in the direction of a politics based on Being and Time are sort of interesting (compared to Michael Walzer, to pick a name at random), they just don’t really go anywhere. People tell me you should read Arendt for the “insights”, not for developed theories or arguments. But I can come up with plausible-sounding but ungrounded ideas on my own, I don’t see what I need Arendt for.

  6. Matt, 10:02 pm, November 14, 2006

    Second the Metapolitics reference.  Although, I think there probably is a way to read Arendt more charitably, mind you.

  7. Dejan, 12:06 pm, February 24, 2007

    I just had a horrible and unexpected encounter with a Bible Thumper who seems to be championing Arendt because of the Christian elements in her work, and those seem to be the ones shared by Lacan (sic!) – in the following manner

    in Arendt’s ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM she provides a very interesting analysis: how the League of Nations was built on human rights, where because the laws were linked to an abstract notion (humanity) this crucial intervention, overriding the traditional guarantees of statehood (nation, religion, …), made it possible for the phenomenon of the stateless person to appear – in essence she proposes that the introduction of human rights was the collapse of the Law of the Father. (Lacan’s teaching here is often compared to the legal system) She further makes an ominous prediction, that this would enable the existence of a future totalitarian state that would be able to amputate one of its members at will.

    Now Bible Thumpers seem to be using statements like this for their own crazy agenda, but nevertheless, the idea does conjure up interesting questions in the context of humanitarian military interventions. Conspicuously enough international law and the UN conventions will be discarded completely without consequence for the perpetrator.

    I remember Zizek was writing a lot about human rights, but given his convoluted and confusing train of thought I can’t tell for sure whether he was extrapolating from Arendt or saying something original on the subject.

    However this thought from ORIGINS is haunting me after many years (and that book is good in general as well).

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