hannah arendt was criticized from 1963 until her death in 1975 for her report of the eichmann trials. adolf eichmann coordinated the deportation and disappearance of, as he bragged, ‘5 million jews’ during hitler’s tenure, after loudly disappearing to argentina after the war he was later kidnapped by the state of israel and put on trial for his german ‘tours of duty’. under arendt’s pen, eichmann appears as simply dumb. a man after a career, yes, duty bound, and guided by quips and cliches of morality that somehow guided him right down the wrong side of the tracks. yet what hannah was critiqued for was not the banality of eichmann, but the banality of evil. she was not the first to propose that much of this deportation an disappearance would have been at least more difficult if jewish community organizers and leadership had not helped tally and account for their own members and populations. and she is not the last to say that ‘who are we to judge’, in the face of atrocities unfathomable, is not only a self-righteous stance it contributes to and collaborates with the very ‘evils’ it is hoping not to judge.
early in the introduction to Eichmann in Jerusalem, arendt writes:
good can be radical: evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet – and this is the horror! – it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. evil comes from a failure to think. it defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. that is the banality of evil.
her point is well taken, and though fungus may not be the best analogy (perhaps a shadow, something more clearly immaterial and insubstantial would have been more in keeping with her point) the pervasiveness, the sporadic and underground growth and the minute revulsion fungus induces hits home. i can’t remember what analogies augustine uses, but he shares with arendt the view that evil is lack. it is absence. in augustin’s work evil is all that is without god, whereas for arendt it is all that is without thought.
is this the point: with.out
avital ronell, in a seminar in saas fee touched on this out/with. what is it to be with and out at once. there is a communal call from the with. yet the out positions the potential bearer of this community clearly across communal borders. it sounds like a having-out-of-sync, this with.out
in other books, other pages, by arendt, she probes this with.out in other terms: looking at morality in a way that puts her in conversation not only with judith butler but also with slavoj zizek, she questions assumed foundations. from plato to kant, arendt is looking for something to ground morals, in a way clearly pressing and prescient after hitler, after the nazi’s, after eichmann. the problem lies directly in social construction, an area so potentially liberating and damning all the same. to break it down: if morality is socially constructed, if it, like kant’s aesthetic judgements are the point of consensus and nothing more, than how can anyone be legally (and otherwise) judged against the law of their land, as eichmann was? if morality is by consensus, and not just nazi germany but every conquered country (with the valiant exceptions of denmark, sweden and finland) agreed to the concentration and extermination of peoples by race (jew, gypsy and otherwise) what ground is left to judge from unless we appeal to a divine, or a platonic idea, or…
judith butler, probes similar questions. as a thinker who so clearly delineates culture as a social construction, her work is a dedication to pulling at the borders, the edges, the lose strings to find where we unravel ourselves. she looks at social construction as the ground of critique and of contest – if we have made it up, we can unmake it, though clearly not without difficulty.
arendt seems to want more than that. she turns, in the epilogue to Eichmann in Jerusalem, to words and ideas like humanity and mankind. but i’d like to suggest that this is not the humanism it seems to be, but something else…
None of the actual participants ever arrived at a clear understanding of the actual horror of Auschwitz, which is of a different nature from all the atrocities of the past, because it appeared to prosecution and judges alike as not much more than the most horrible pogrom in jewish history. they therefore believed that a direct line existed from the early anti-semitism f the nazi party to the nuremburg laws and from there to the expulsion of the jews from the reich and finally, to the gas chambers. politcally and legally, however, these were ‘crimes’ different not only in degree of seriousness but in essence.
why this move? why was it not a pogrom? wouldn’t it be all the more heinous as part of a history of devastation against one nation of homeless peoples? no. arendt’s project is not to look for the most heinous: the nazi’s have done that work for her and no further proof should be needed (the deniers of the holocaust being quite another problem…). arendt is looking not for the evil that slips through, that grows like fungus, but for the good. where are the grounds for the good? what, other than moral cliches, could people turn to when culture was not only turning the other way, but turning circles from where it had been?
this was her project. this is the project. this is (for all its personal irony) ‘what is called thinking’.
it is the search for a with.in that can be theorized, lived, and positively free.