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.