Monday, November 9, 2009

Heidegger & Arendt in the Popular Media

My dear friend, John at the University of Hawai`i Mānoa, shared this link to a New York Times article introducing a new book on Heidegger.

In this article, by Patricia Cohen, I am once again reminded why it is important that at all times I strive for comprehension by those that hear me. Cohen's article promulgates several unfortunate and familiar - as in cliche - opinions (not hers, I suspect, but present without discussion) about Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, and ultimately thinking itself.

The article, it seems, exists to inform the Times' readership that Emmanuel Faye's book is going to be published soon. I s'pose we must consider it, then, an advertisement. But Cohen's article seems largely to be infotainment as what is reported here is that there is (cue the E! and Inside Edition people) a scandal at play in this publication! OMG! Heidegger had sex with Hannah Arendt! Quick! Get the editors on the horn, we got us a whopper!

(now an imaginary conversation in my head)
Editors: Good eye, Cohen. But this is the New York Times, we're really more a vehicle for advertising on the backs of information. You gotta present more information here. Did anyone else announce that this book was going to be published?

Cohen: Yes, the Chronicle Review

Editors: Great, now it looks like we did some background work. Run it. Remember, "if it bleeds, it leads."

Sorry a flight of fancy. I suppose I should remember that the Books section of the NYT is simply an advertisement.
 But is that all it should be?

Couldn't the paper present something more?

I'd just like to point out one thing that seems glaringly obvious, but probably would upset those whose palms were greased in getting this infotainment manufactured: the gist of the book is that Heidegger thought one way and acted in other ways, and the author (Emmanuel Faye) doesn't like that.

Faye doesn't like that there is this ambiguity (adults, I sugges,t are marked by their ability to navigate ambiguity).

Now, it might seem unfair to do this, but didn't Heidegger himself say that we cannot overcome previous thinkers by simply dismissing them, we must think what was unthought in our predecessors? In other words, what ever philosophy is, what ever thinking is, it is first and foremost a task that requires thinking/philosophizing with those that came before us. It's an activity that requires considered opinion. It's a task (when done properly) that will be reminiscent of deep affection or love: philosophy = love (philia) of wisdom (sophia).

True to the tabloid nature of mainstream media, Cohen brings in Hannah Arendt (the Rihanna to Heidegger's Chris Brown) simply to say that Heidegger tainted her thinking and cites another unfortunate piece by Ron Rosenbaum at slate.com. Rosenbaum, naturally, parades the familiar (again, cliché) idea that Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" is too dismissive.



Rosenbaum and Cohen both share the same flaw: they are poor thinkers. They are poor in the sense that they fail to think with their subjects. I'm not disagreeing with some of Rosenbaum's concerns about Arendt (for example, she has an obvious disdain for Jews that are not her kind of Jew); and I think Arendt herself is aware of that inconsistency (Rosenbaum even says as much). So, I'm not disagreeing with Rosenbaum in some ways; but I am concerned, and suggest we should all be concerned, about how the phrase "banality of evil" is misconstrued in Rosenbaum's article.

Rosenbaum latches onto Arendt's decision to move away from "radical evil" to "the banality of evil." I'll simply quote the argument:
My hope is that these revelations will encourage a further discrediting of the most overused, misused, abused pseudo-intellectual phrase in our language: the banality of evil. The banality of the banality of evil, the fatuousness of it, has long been fathomless, but perhaps now it will be consigned to the realm of the deceitful and disingenuous as well.
Fatuous, pseudo-intellectual, deceitful, disingenuous: these are the words that should be applied to Eichmann, the man for whom this phrase was penned. What Rosenbaum fails to allow into this critique is why Arendt found this the appropriate epithet. We have to keep in mind that Eichmann stated he was not guilty of a crime because a crime requires criminal intent and he had no criminal intent because he did not think that what he was doing was evil and he didn't think what he was doing was evil because he was dutifully applying Kant's categorical imperative: in every decision we make we must always consider its morality were it to be a universal way of being. So Eichmann felt that doing what he did dutifully, were it to become a law and everyone else were to follow it, was a very moral way of being, he even thought of himself as exemplary (which Arendt seized upon in many a critique of his mediocrity, his banality).

Arendt's "banality of evil" should be read as a clarion call: Eichmann is no different from any of us if we are not mindful of our supreme moral obligation to one another. Eichmann justified his behavior based on a reading of Kant and a belief that maintaining the order demanded by the State was the same thing as being moral. Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem - The Banality of Evil is a character study, an X-ray if you will, of the fissures present in our Modern understanding of how politics is possible. Her final judgement of Eichmann is that he is guilty because he acted in concert with people that believed that they had the ability to choose who was allowed to live on this earth and who was not. Her critique of the trial itself is that it failed to enunciate an even bigger problem facing all of humanity (and not just Israel): our laws are no longer able to comprehend the evil committed by the Nazis. Our laws are predicated on the belief that criminal behavior is the result of criminal intent and that the criminal subject can know the difference.

What Arendt realizes in the trial of Eichmann is that we've entered a new moment in jurisprudence, an aporia: if the Law is established to ensure that morality is maintained and then immoral Laws (such as laws requiring the execution of Jews or the torture and indefinite detention of "enemy noncombatants" in Guantánamo Bay) are enacted - doesn't it become criminal to be moral? If it is required by all subjects to be immoral, how can we put them on trial? Arendt's "banality of evil" is not a description of how boring was Eichmann-as-bureaucrat (C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters already did that); rather, "the banality of evil" describes a political process underway in all modern democracies. It is in this sense that we see Giorgio Agamben's State of Exception as an extension of Arendt's concept.

So, it's wrong to think that Heidegger has "contaminated" Arendt's thinking (how's this for a transition from the above paragraph back into the initial ones?) for one because the contamination model suggests that thinking is something possible without exposure to others, which is preposterous. From Cohen's infotainment:
Without understanding the soil in which Heidegger’s philosophy is rooted, Mr. Faye argues, people may not realize that his ideas can grow in troubling directions. Heidegger’s dictum to be authentic and free oneself from conventional restraints, for example, can lead to a rejection of morality. The denunciation of reason and soulless modernism can devolve into crude anti-intellectualism and the glorification of “blood and soil.”
The simplest argument against Cohen's "reporting" on this new Heidegger book is to treat another body of thinking in this manner and see what happens: "You know, the words of Christ were used to justify the mass extermination of Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, etc. and so we should get rid of Christianity."

Put in these terms, Faye's book sounds infantile, which it probably is based on Cohen's presentation. So the question becomes this: The Books section of the New York Times is not a philosophically-minded publication, so it's a bad place to look for a discussion of Heidegger or Arendt. But, it's a great place to mobilize those that can't be bothered to read either Arendt or Heidegger. It's a great vehicle for getting the Eichmann's of today to act against the further discussion of Heidegger or Arendt. I mean, neither Cohen nor Rosenbaum discuss the absolutely crucial relationship to Karl Jaspers that sustained both Arendt and Heidegger.

The denial of Jaspers (not even mentioned) is a strong indication that Arendt and Heidegger are presented in the Cohen and Rosenbaum articles only as strawmen: these philosophers are presented here to mobilize popular sentiment against two thinkers whose projects have fundamentally changed the game.

2 comments:

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