Reading Hannah Arendt (Politically)

by Martha Rosler

Hannah Arendt was already a New Yorker when I first became aware of her writings, but it took some time before I was disposed to read European philosophers - as an undergraduate art and literature major, I was more interested in reading the ancient philosophers, on the one hand, and modern literature, on the other. Soon, however, we were engaging with the great flood of European philosophy in translation to help us understand and change the world, most prominently, the works of the Frankfurt School, among them Herbert Marcuse, who was also our mentor in San Diego. By the time I read Arendt's work, she was already chastising us students for the nature of our concerns and our forms of opposition to the Vietnam War. Her long essay on Eichmann in Jerusalem I read in book form, and I found it to be compelling -unlike many of its prominent Jewish critics, who, it seems, agreed neither with her thesis on the banality of evil (important enough to form the subtitle of the book) nor with what they took to be her accusation of Jewish complicity, however unwitting, with Nazi plans regarding extermination the Jews. Their anger seemed to be based on the dearth of information available then on the subject and also on her insistently accurate reportage of the arguments made during the trial.

This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that her careful reasoning and philosophical distinctions would result in consternation on the part of readers, including me. Yet her discussions of politics, power, and public and private life were always worth reading with respect if not full assent. But it was her work on totalitarianism that I found most immediately compelling, for its weight of historical analysis as well as for its diagnoses of what I continue to regard as contemporary trends - especially in direct relation to the actions of my own government.

I n the early 1980s I came across a short quotation from Arendt: one sentence or two on what amounts to international bullying, expressed through an analogy. It derives from her work The Origins of Totalitarianism of 1951 and 1958. I used this quotation in 1985, together with a somewhat longer quotation from the social "scientist" Harold Lasswell (on the usefulness of ordinary reporters in retailing home-front propaganda in war), in an exhibition, at the "Alternative Museum" in New York, called "Disinformation" my work for this exhibition, "If It's Too Bad to Be True, It Could Be DISINFORMATION", is being remounted in Istanbul, as I write, for an exhibition called "Rumour as Media"

The quotation from Hannah Arendt is reproduced here.

I used this quotation again, in 1993, in a work that I did in Graz, for a "Steirischer Herbst" exhibition called "Krieg". That region of Austria is close to Yugoslavia, which was then embroiled in the long and bloody process of dissolution, which may not yet be ended. My work, called "It Lingers," consists of a large array of photographs of various sizes that relate to the representations of war and politics, both factual and fictive (including questionable imagery and fictional cinema), and a series of small newspaper maps showing some of the many conflict zones then current, from the ongoing siege of Sarajevo to Chad and Israel/Palestine.

On the wall next to this array of photographs were two texts: one from a report of a commission of inquiry sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1914, before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo. It read in part:
"The Muslim population endured … a period of lawless vengeance and unmeasured suffering. In many districts the Muslim villages were systematically burned by their Christian neighbors. … The fighting was desperate, as though extermination were the end sought… the very doors of Hell seemed to be opened. No language can describe the tortures and griefs which followed."

Next to this description the quotation from Hannah Arendt is of course more measured, even ironic. But it puts in starkly metaphorical terms the tactical behavior of many warlike regimes, such as my own - which seems to be unwilling to foreswear its warlike drive toward global dominance.

At the present moment, thinking is greatly to be desired. In my contribution to the exhibition "Hannah Arendt Denkraum" on the centenary of Hannah Arendt's birth, nothing seemed more appropriate than to present a series of passages from her work, to help us think through this moment and to act, as citizens and interested persons, to play our part, however small, in determining the fate of the world's peoples.