Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times

To put it bluntly, it would be as misleading today to recommend Walter Benjamin as a literary critic and essayist as it would have been misleading to recommend Kafka of 1924 as a short-story writer and novelist. The describe adequately his work and him as an author within our usual framework of reference, one would have to make a great many negative statements, such as: his erudition was great, but he was no scholar; his subject matter comprised texts and their interpretation, but he was no philologist; he was greatly attracted not by religion but, “Walter Benjamin by theology and the theological type of interpretation for which the text itself is sacred, but he was no theologian and he was not particularly interested in the Bible; he was a born writer, but his greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotiations; he was the was the first Germ to translate Proust (together with Franz Hess) and St.-John Perse, and before that he had translated Baudelaire’s Tablueax Parisiens, but he was no translator; he reviewed books and wrote a number of essays on living and dead writers, but he was no literary critic; he wrote a book about the German baroque and left behind a huge unfinished study of the French nineteenth century, but he as no historian, literary or otherwise; I shall try to show that he thought poetically, but he was neither a poet nor a philosopher. – Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times, pp.155-156

The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs.  The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations.  At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them.  Our consideration proceeds from the insight the the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.   It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 258

Walter Benjamin at work

Walter Benjamin at work

Georg Lukacs wrote of some members of the Frankfurt School, Adorno in particular:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss” which I described […] as “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.

In much the same way, Adorno was critical of his mentor and friend Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Production”, “I am all too aware of the weakness of the work. And this consists, to put it crudely, in the tendency to engage in Jeremiads and polemics” (Quoted in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor Adorno: Selected With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes, p.249n78), a charge I find all the more fascinating and lacking in ironic self-awareness considering Adorno’s tendency toward the exaggerated statement for elucidating a far more mundane point (something Lepper, the editor of the above volume of Adorno’s writings on music, notes early and often as part of Adorno’s “style”). Indeed, “Art In The Age Of Mechanical Production” may well be one of the most positive statements regarding the revolutionary potential of popular art (film in this case) from a leftist perspective written in the 20th century.

Just as Lukacs became contemptuous of the kind of too-comfortable armchair dialectics of Adorno and his circle, Adorno’s rejection of Benjamin precisely because he was “undialectic” (quoted in Arendt, p.162) and spoke scathingly of Benjamin’s “attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were.” (Arendt, p.163), sprung both from a fairly meritorious critical eye which nevertheless missed the deeper heart of the one being criticized. While it may well have been the case that Adorno’s life was just a tad too comfortable for one claiming a mantle as a revolutionary, so, too, were Benjamin’s works, in Arendt’s words, the strangest kind of Marxism. For Benjamin, however, his dedication to the revolutionary cause, while certainly a vital part of the intellectual toolkit he brought to every task – he came very close to joining the party in the mid-1920’s – was nevertheless uncomfortable enough with Marxist dialectics and a materialism stripped of its spiritual dimension that even to call him a Marxist (Lukacs mentions Benjamin as among his circle of “comrades” for which he grew contemptuous) is a fundamental misunderstanding of the man and his work.

Born in 1892, coming of age just prior to World War I, seeing little in Weimar Germany to recommend itself either to himself as critic or to others as a writer, finally trapped within the maelstrom of history in western Europe in the 1930’s, Benjamin took his own life after, having already made an arduous trek through southwestern France, precious papers in hand to allow him passage, he arrived at the Spanish border the day Spain closed its doors (albeit temporarily; no one, of course, could have known this at the time) to refugees from unoccupied France. His decision to end his own life, while certainly tragic (Berthold Brecht wrote that Benjamin’s death was the first real victory for the Nazi’s against German literature), was, given the circumstances, easily understandable. Not well known in his own time, his closest friends and supporters long since gone to the United States, and his physical, emotional, financial, and probably psychological resources spent, how is one person suppose to stand against the juggernaut of that moment in European history?

All the same, I think Arendt’s inclusion of Benjamin in a volume dedicated to extraordinary people living through extraordinary times (essay subjects include Lessing, Pope John XXIII, Brecht, and Karl Jaspers along with Benjamin and a couple others) is more than a little misleading. Benjamin was, alas, no more a product and commentator upon his times than he was a “simple” literary critic or historian or theologian. Indeed, paying attention to Arendt’s descriptions of Benjamin’s work, the themes she emphasizes, and the examples she cites, it becomes clear that Walter Benjamin was far more a man of the 19th century, particularly 19th century Paris with its rich bohemian subculture, than of the 20th. He was well educated yet could not bear the thought of academe. Like many children of that first generation of German Jews to succeed at assimilation, Benjamin neither considered himself “Jewish” nor did he wish so to be perceived, yet he ran up against official and cultural and social anti-Semitism throughout his life, policies that restricted what he as an unbaptized yet also unpracticing Jew could achieve. Despite this, throughout his adult life, he flirted (at the very least) with Zionism, having made friends with Gerhard Scholem before the First World War broke out. He was constantly writing Scholem that he was considering emigration to Jerusalem, yet he could never quite make the leap precisely because it involved labeling both his person and his work indelibly as “Jewish”, something he didn’t care to do.

Like the description Arendt gives in the epigrammatic quote concerning Benjamin’s literary interests and output, Benjamin was also jealous of his own prerogative concerning the kind of man, the individual, he wished to be. Arendt uses a the French word flâneur as what best suits Benjamin. It is no surprise that part of his never-completed Arcades project saw light under the title “Die flâneur”. The flâneur were a type, not quite a class and certainly not a “community” as we would understand it, who had a certain presence in 19th century Paris. Often derided as bums, they were children of wealthy bourgeois homes who, having no responsibilities to themselves or others, would wander through the streets and arcades and boulevards of Paris, taking in what there was to see and hear, experiencing what there was to experience, without any particular rhyme or reason. Obviously there is something more than a little decadent (both in literal and political uses of the word) about such living. At the same time, there’s an attractiveness to the kind of freedom – freedom from financial worry; freedom from interpersonal responsibility; freedom from the any sense of a purpose or end to such activities – that still appeals. They were, in a word, bohemians, although perhaps without the aesthetic self-consciousness of some such.

Benjamin was comfortable in academic work (his Habilitationschrift was a study of German Baroque Tragedy), with the popular essay (“Unpacking My Library”), critical appreciation (essays on Brecht and Kafka), and even venturing a typically Marxist style and subject matter (“Theses On History”). He both desired the approval of academics, yet because of the demand that he be baptized before he could serve on a University faculty (that would have required him acknowledging his Jewishness as definitive, something he never wanted to do), was never really desirous of such a position. He could play with a variety of vocabularies – Marxist, theological, aesthetic, poetic – without either losing his distinctive voice; he could use these styles without ever becoming so immersed in them he lost his particularity. That particularly after the First World War Benjamin always kept his options open both with Zionism and Communism (two ideologies that vocally detested one another), he never concerned himself even with having to make a choice. He faced the criticisms of friends (Adorno) and mentors (Scholem) with a kind of equanimity borne, I think, from a kind of self-awareness that allowed him to know they just didn’t get him.

What to many might seem the inconsequential, perhaps even dilettante, concerns – his bibliomania, for one; an incident, highlighted by Arendt, of Benjamin becoming enthralled by two grains of wheat upon which a prayerful soul had inscribed the entire Shema Israel – and see in them an importance that others, far more concerned with the scope and sweep of History, not only wouldn’t see, but couldn’t see. This, too, is a kind of aestheticism, a very 19th century attitude toward life and the world that was very much out of place in a world riven first by tragedy in Benjamin’s early adulthood, soon to be destroyed completely. Most intellectuals considered the First World War, with its destruction of a species of European cosmopolitanism, a “turning point” in the most literal way: historical reality had invalidated the best hopes of the previous century and there was, thus, no going back. Yet it was Benjamin who wrote in his “Theses on History” that history was an Angel, her eyes turned toward the wreckage of the past, always being pulled backwards with the present moment. For Benjamin, that wreckage was both very real yet also still held the truth of what had constituted it in the very piles of dust and brick and bone and blood. Far happier in Paris than he ever had been in his native Berlin, far more attracted to the minutiae of life than to the grand sweep of History, quite happy to write quasi-Marxist cultural criticism or an appreciation of Brecht’s early works, Benjamin was far more a creature of an irretrievable past than he was the historical moments through which he lived.

We usually consider people to be products primarily of the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions within which they live. Benjamin, however, while never rejecting his own times, was nevertheless a half-conscious throwback. His “No” to his times – exemplified in his adoption of a Marxist vocabulary while never fully embracing either Marxism or the Communist Party – was as much a desire to reclaim a better past as it was a hope in a future no longer touched by the desolation of his own particular times.

There is something tragically heroic in such a stance, one which understands one’s own time only as a negation both of what has been and what will be. As long as life promises possibilities, it is easy enough to face adversity and continue to struggle on. Facing the full wrath of Historical forces beyond anyone’s ability either to withstand or even comprehend, however, that ghostly past and evanescent future can be crushed along with everything else. Thus was Benjamin’s end, death by his own hand, comprehensible. The gigantic machinery of mass death was pushing hard upon him, resisted by the equally strong forces of those who, acting out of fear, became its unwitting agents, would leave few of us the wherewithal to carry on. If the First World War had destroyed the 19th century, it is not hard to imagine one such as Walter Benjamin, believing the Gestapo was close on his heels and his only escape route now closed, to understand this new war, waged by demonic forces of anti-culture and anti-humanity, might well destroy not only the 20th, but perhaps the 21st as well.

It has been the work of many to resurrect Benjamin’s life and work, reconstitute his correspondence, and try  best to explain this one individual, lost in his own time, to those who have come after who, perhaps, feel more than a little affinity for one who just wasn’t completely at home in his own times. His subject matter might seem to be inconsequential. His style might seem eclectic, even precious on occasion. His scope of interests  are not quite as clear if we consider only what was published in his lifetime. All the same, this incomplete life (Benjamin was three years younger than I am now when he died) and his incomplete work together demonstrate that even fragments can be meaningful.

After all, someone once wrote the Shema Israel on two grains of wheat. In the scraps of life we might yet find the whole of history, if we are willing to look with enough care.


Theodor W. Adorno, “On The Fetish-Character In Music And Regression In Listening”

[Georges] Duhamel calls the movie “a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries. . ., a spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes not intelligence . . ., which kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a “star” in Los Angeles.”  Clearly, this is at bottom the same ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.  That is a commonplace. . . . Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it.  He enters into this work of art the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting.  In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.  This is most obvious with regard to buildings.  Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction. – Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Hannah Arendt, ed., Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, p. 239

Masochism in hearing is not only defined by self-surrender and pseudo-pleasure through identification with power.  Underlying it is the knowledge that the security of shelter under the ruling conditions is a provisional one, that it is only a respite, and that eventually everything must collapse.  Even in self-surrender one is not good in his own eyes; in his enjoyment one feels that he is simultaneously betraying the possible and being betrayed by the existent. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and Regression in Listening,” in Richard Leppert, ed., p. 311

And to think I was going to skip over the editor’s introductory commentary to this section!  I was so intent on getting to the meat of the next set of Adorno’s essays, I argued with myself for most of a day before I decided it best to read what Leppert had to say about what followed.  “On the Fetish-Character in Music” is, at least for those who know a little bit about philosophy, an oft-heard-of essay.  This along with the earlier essay on the radio symphony were two in particular I wanted to dive in to.  Reading Leppert’s introductory commentary, however, provided abundant context for the genesis of both essays.  These contexts only increased, for this reader, the importance of what Adorno was saying.

“The Fetish-Character” was a direct response, after some correspondence back and forth, to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  Interestingly, Adorno’s response was published before that to which it was responding; Benjamin’s essay was only published posthumously.  Adorno, however, read an early manuscript and he and Benjamin, friends for many years, had a lively correspondence that resulted in this essay.  Learning that, I thought it a good idea to read both in order to understand precisely what each is saying, and specifically that to which Adorno is responding.

Benjamin saw in film the culmination of nearly a century of invention that began with photography, then moving pictures, then the ability to record sounds, then finally adding sound to film.  While recognizing the regressive possibilities of film, Benjamin saw in precisely what he calls “a change in apperception” brought about by film progressive possibilities.  Much of the essay is taken up with building up the history of film, contrasting it with other arts, then defending his central point that, in film, modernity has quite possibly met an art form the internal contradictions of which offer the possibility for real progress.

Anticipating some of Adorno’s concerns – perhaps an addendum that resulted from their correspondence – Benjamin adds a post-script in which he adds a long quote from the Italian Futurist/Fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti on the the aesthetics of what Marinetti calls “the music of war”.  Benjamin also attacks the Dadaists, the most extreme artistic movement of the 1920’s, for what were, in fact, little more than anti-aesthetic, juvenile pranks that fit far more with the rise of Fascism than any emancipatory possibilities inherent in their art.

Adorno, on the other hand, is unsparing in his criticism both of the results of the commodification and reification of music as well as its effects upon those he repeatedly calls “the masses”.

An approach in terms of value judgments has become a fiction for the person who finds himself hemmed in by standardized musical foods.  He can neither escape impotence nor escape the offerings where everything is so completely identical that preference in fact depends merely on biographical details or on the situation in which things are heard.  The categories of autonomously oriented art have no applicability to the contemporary reception of music; not even for that of serious music, domesticated under the barbarous name of classical so as to enable one to turn away from it again in comfort.  If it is object that specifically light music and everything intended for consumption have in any case never been experienced in terms of those categories, that must certainly be conceded.  Nevertheless, such music is also affected by the change in the the entertainment, the pleasure, the enjoyment it promises, is given only to be simultaneously denied. (pp. 288-289)

Impulse, subjectivity, and profanation, the old adversaries of materialistic alienation, now succumb to it.  In capitalist times, the traditional anti-mythological ferments of music conspire against freedom, as whose allies they were once proscribed.  The representatives of the opposition to the authoritarian schema become witnesses to the authority of commercial  success.  The delight in the moment and the gay facade becomes an excuse for absolving the listener from the thought of the whole, whose claim is comprised in proper listening.  The listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser,  No longer do the partial moments serve as a critique of that whole; instead, they suspend the critique which the successful aesthetic totality exerts against the flawed one of society.  The unitary synthesis is sacrificed to them; they no longer produce their own in a place of the reified one, but show themselves complaisant to it.(p. 291)

The concept of musical fetishism cannot be psychologically derived.  That “values” are consumed and draw feelings to themselves, without their specific qualities being reached by the consciousness of the consumer, is a later expression of their commodity character.  For all contemporary musical life is dominated by the commodity form: the last pre-capitalist residues have been eliminated.  Music, with all the attributes of the ethereal and sublime which are generously accorded it, serves in America today as an advertisement for commodities which one must acquire in order to be able to hear music.(p. 295)

Nobody believes so completely in prescribed pleasure.  But the listening nevertheless remeans regressive in assenting to this situation despite all distrust and all ambivalence.  As a result of the displacement of feelings into exchange-value, no demands are really advanced in music anymore.  Substitutes satisfy their purpose as well, because the demand to which they adjust themselves has itself already been substituted.  But ears which are still only able to hear what one demands of them in what is offered, and which register the abstract charm instead of synthesizing the moments of charm, are bad ears.  Even in the “isolated” phenomenon, key aspects will escape them; that is, those which transcend its own isolation.  There is actually a neurotic mechanism of stupidity in listening, too: the arrogantly ignorant rejection of everything unfamiliar is its sure sign.  Regressive listeners behave like children.  Again and again and with stubborn malice, they demand the one dish they have once been served.(p.307)

For Adorno, the notion that any art, under the conditions of late capitalism in an era of totalitarianisms, might yet be free enough to provide real progressive potential for the masses ignores the reality that, whether capitalist, Fascist, or State Socialist, the aestheticization of politics, as well as the politicization of aesthetics, work together to strip both works of art and the people of any possibility of a living relationship with that art.  For Adorno, this is no more easy to see than in the fetishizing of music and the resulting regression of listening.

In its most simple terms, regressive listening can be summed up by that old American Bandstand chestnut, “It had a good beat and you could dance to it.”  Indeed, Adorno notes that people who like popular dance music complain that it isn’t any good for just listening.  For Adorno, music is made for listening, which for him is an active process, a dialectical process in which we encounter what music has to offer, and music offers us a truth-value that is available only through active listening.  What Adorno calls, variously, light music, popular music, and occasionally even jazz, is little more than an unending commercial not only for consumer goods, but for itself as a consumer product available as a thing to be owned, rather than something before which we should sit, listen, and consider what it has to say to us.

I would have to say there is much truth to what Adorno has to say, while his disdain for popular music – sometimes warranted for the worst mass-produced non-music that continues to flood the airwaves and the internet – misses something important about American music, jazz in particular.  These are topics, by and large, to be dealt with at a later date; all the same, it is important to remember that Adorno succumbs to what he calls “the barbarism” of classification, naming different styles of music in order to place them in definable, purchasable categories.  By refusing to take music qua music on its own terms, reserving for certain orchestral works, both from the past and the present music proper, Adorno ignores the very thing he stresses throughout this piece – the historical situatedness of music.  For Adorno, however, that only means its existing within the larger matrices of high capitalist economy, which has no less a totalitarian tendency than do Fascism and the State Socialism of Stalinism.  For Adorno, music has become understood solely for its use-value, reducible to its exchange-value, and losing all value once it has served its social function.  Thus it is that so many listeners refuse to hear anything new, rejecting it no less violently than they do the possibility that music offers the attentive listener something more than a passive experience.

Again, this is one of the most relentless, passionate critiques of the aesthetics of high capitalism I have ever read.  There is much in it that is true, although there is also much that is questionable.  The very real, very human resistance both to reduction to “neurotic” regressive listening and absorption into mass listening serving the ends of the needs of bourgeois production should never be gainsaid, set to one side either for the sake of consistency or to exaggerate a claim to make it more clear (something Leppert noted in his Introduction was common in Adorno).  We should always remember the human element in all this is evident, if for no other reason than Adorno himself, as well as Benjamin, were able to write these essays, unreflexively, in the full awareness of the limitations within which both lived and worked.  And it is precisely there – an awareness of the limitations upon a fully human life, including a full appreciation of the liberating possibilities inherent in art, including music – that our hope lies.  Even when those hopes are discounted in an essay the very existence of which belies the extreme case set forth.  This doesn’t make Adorno wrong throughout; it is only a cautionary note in going all the way with him, no matter the power of his prose.

Hannah Arendt’s “On Violence”

Georges Sorel, Theoretician of Syndicalism

Georges Sorel, Theoretician of Syndicalism

Frantz Fanon, Author of The Wretched Of The Earth

Frantz Fanon, Author of The Wretched Of The Earth

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

1969 has sometimes been described as a time of madness.  The year before saw youth uprisings in the United States, France, and Czechoslovakia.  The French students, protesting an ossified education system not only brought down the government; they managed to collapse the entire French Republic, a revolution that no one expected to succeed.  In Prague, a season of modest reforms of the communist government resulted in Soviet tanks rolling through the streets; thus a revolution that everyone wanted was destroyed.

The situation in the United States was, if anything, more chaotic.  Students were protesting the Vietnam War, of course; they were also protesting an ossified education system that refused to recognize the reality of minority student grievances against a system never designed to accommodate them, resulting in the insulting claims that the majority of African-Americans in higher education were not prepared to do academic work (an insult Arendt repeats).  The Democratic convention in Chicago unraveled in an epic scene of police overreaction to a few outlandish street theatrics, indicting the thousands of young people who wanted Hubert Humphrey to take a firm stand against the war in Vietnam as well as in favor of a hodge-podge of domestic programs meant to expand Pres. Johnson’s Great Society.  The SDS, once upon a time a group of idealistic liberals, split over the tactical issue of violence, with the far more radical Weather Underground insisting that urban terrorism was a legitimate use of force against an increasingly repressive state police power.

In 1969, Hannah Arendt weighed in on the matter of violence, first looking at then-recent history, then a quick survey of theoretical treatments of violence from syndicalist Georges Sorel and his call for the General Strike, through the first part of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, to what Arendt identifies as theoretically unconnected quasi-Marxist statements given by what was then called The New Left.  Finally, she attempts not only to define violence – separate from force, authority, and strength – and to examine if its use is ever morally legitimate.  What is most fascinating, not only from 45 years distant but in the context of recent events in Ferguson, MO, is Arendt’s attempt to discuss the matter of violence absent any concrete context of violence.  She begins her essay, for example, discussing a topic much in vogue at the time: how the rise of thermonuclear weapons have made war impossible.  The whole first section of the essay is written as if much of the anger among American youth and young adults wasn’t aimed squarely at a war the United States was waging in Southeast Asia.  It is almost uncanny how she manages to write about the impossibility of war at the very time she addresses American students radicalized by an unjust and illegal war.

Another serious problem is to consider Frantz Fanon a theoretician of violence.  She chides Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote the Introduction to an edition of Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earthfor not reading the whole of Fanon’s work.  Yet in identifying Fanon as a theoretician of violence demonstrates she, too, has neither read nor understood Fanon’s work.  It is neither theoretical nor an endorsement of violence as a practical political tool. Working as a psychiatrist with youth in Algeria during the long struggle against the French occupation, Fanon turned his clinical experiences in to reflections on how violence is both a rational result of dehumanizing conditions and results in the psychological and physical destruction both of the oppressor and oppressed.

The most important question regarding violence is one she never addresses, precisely because her entire discussion has no roots in anything actually taking place anywhere in the world.  Whether or not violence is successful as a revolutionary tactic is a political scientist’s question.  Whether or not violence is a rational response, as Fanon made clear it can be, to a situation in which human beings live within structures of governance and social control that deny their humanity continues to be one of two questions that, whenever violence and war erupt, never get addressed in our public discourse.  The other question regards the legitimacy of the state’s use of force and violence towards its own citizens, or in a situation such as a war or occupation, the use of force and violence toward an occupied population.  While in the abstract, Arendt concedes that the use of force by state actors against its own citizens, such as in Ferguson, MO, demonstrates the collapse of legitimacy, she never addresses the interlocking systems of violence, coercion, and dehumanization that produce a constant state of fear and anger among target populations.  If, for example, the actions of the Ferguson, MO police force in the wake of organized, peaceful protests are illegitimate, what about a police force that is nearly all white in a minority-majority community?  What kind of legitimacy does any police force have among minority communities in the United States, who have a long history of official repression and continue to experience daily humiliations and harassment by the most visible representatives of state power?  In such a situation, is not the question not the wisdom or rationality of a violent response by persons in communities who are exhausted by police harassment, but rather the on-going low-level violence these communities face?

In matters of international conflict, the cycle of violence between Israel and Palestine is a wonderful test case of the legitimacy of the use of force by state actors in a quasi-international conflict.  While this is only my opinion, it seems clear that matters of justice and right in the use of force have lost any relationship to actual events, especially since the rise of the second Intifada and the collapse of the PLO’s Fatah in the West Bank.  Both sides have legitimate claims both to international sympathies as well as international condemnation.  There will be no resolution to this conflict as long as both sides insist that the use of violence is a legitimate response to repeated injustices, attacks, and the death of citizens.  While certainly not tactically, or even strategically, wise, the use of violence, from the occupation, forced removal, and destruction of property Israeli settlers perpetrate on the West Bank to the barrage of rockets from Gaza are cycles that feed one another, with the result that the question of the legitimacy of violence no longer has any meaning, even though it is clearly the most important question that should be posed.

Arendt’s treatment of violence in this essay is theoretically interesting, while vacuous when dealing with specific instances.  Afflicted by racial and cultural blinders that were still common among persons of her age and status, she could not see, for example, that Jean-Paul Sartre’s misreading of Fanon was no more egregious than her own; that her insulting insistence that demands from African-American university students in the United States for reforms in a system never designed to accommodate them were not demands for the lowering of standards, but the dismantling of racially discriminatory policies and practices that insisted persons of color were not up to the task of academic excellence.  Finally, writing about violence absent any examination of the legitimacy of state violence (as opposed to the use of violence against the state) not only takes for granted the legitimacy of the state monopoly on violence that has been part and parcel of the western nation-state since its invention; it denies an examination of the pervasiveness of violence as part of systems of state control, particularly of minority populations, against which citizen action, while perhaps neither wise nor likely to succeed, nevertheless makes far more sense than passive resignation.

Since the use of non-violent resistance both in India and the United States, many western liberals have concluded that violence as a political tactic is not only immoral but self-defeating.  It is therefore not surprising that Arendt would claim that the use of violence against the state will fail, except in rare cases. Liberals, however, are never comfortable with the reality that violence is a tool for social control, very often with their tacit support.  While many liberals are “upset” by the shooting of Michael Brown, many whites are also “upset” with the reaction of the African-American citizens of that small town, as if their peaceful protests and demands for justice were somehow enough of a threat to the power structure to warrant their forceful suppression.  The vast amount of violence in Ferguson is not the fault of the African-American citizens, but the police.  That Arendt leaves no space for a discussion of this reality other than the banal but irrelevant truism that this demonstrates the collapse of legitimate authority demonstrates the void at the heart of her essay.

While certainly an important and informative work, at the end of the day, we should move beyond this finally unsatisfying treatment of the question of violence.