Sep 042014

A short but fruitful conversation between Robert Paul Wolff and I begin when he posted comments about a New York Times review of a new book on the historical Eichmann. The new book is Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer by Bettina Stangneth, and neither of us have read it. But our dialogue about this book we haven’t read was fruitful because it highlighted some of the problems with the Arendt-Eichmann debate that are insufficiently discussed.

First, in my initial comment on the book review, I pointed out the complex relationship between Arendt and Kant and between both and Eichmann, relationships which may contribute to some of the misunderstandings of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Here are those comments for the record:

From the review, I don’t see much of anything new added to the debate–at least not on the level of political philosophy where Arendt was working. I find it fascinating the amount of ink wasted in trying to debunk Arendt’s Eichmann. For me, these portrayals of Eichmann as a purposeful, self-conscious mastermind of evil do not necessarily conflict with Arendt’s account, if the latter is properly understood in the context of Arendt’s political philosophy and, importantly here, Arendt’s own engagement with Kant.

For example, see:

Most criticisms of Arendt’s Eichmann from cultural critics and historians tend to fall flat for not paying attention to what words like thinking, calculating, judgment, practical/theoretical reason, etc. mean for Arendt vis-a-vis her interpretation of Kant and other philosophers for that matter. It was always important for Arendt to make distinctions between various modes or levels of thinking, and to look for those types of thought that correspond to certain types of political activity. So people tend to misread her at exactly these moments of distinction in which Arendt is most intently engaging with a critical philosophical (rather than political or historical) tradition, particularly from Kant to Heidegger.

So, my point was that while many in the debate over the veracity of Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann are on a search for the historical man, a different–perhaps more important, perhaps not–philosophical, or critical-theoretical, point is missed. That point is that Arendt saw Eichmann not merely as an isolated individual acting with the full capacities of a self-determining Kantian rational agent, but that he was also being motivated and driven by a surrounding totalitarian process. That totalitarian process was what moved Arendt to find in Eichmann a kind of banality or unthinking passiveness.

Wolff responded by noting his general reservations about Arendt’s work and pointing me to his 1982 essay “Notes for a Materialist Analysis of the Public and the Private Realms,” which can be found on his website here. In that essay, which I had not previously read, Wolff offers an insightful critique of Arendt’s discussion of the public realm in The Human Condition. At some point I will work on a longer response to his essay–there is much to think about–but for now it’s only important to note that I do think some of the features of Arendt’s ideas and style of philosophical writing are susceptible to Wolff’s criticisms. Yet, on another level, I see a possibility of agreement between Wolff and Arendt, particularly if the conversation focuses on a critique of totalitarianism and other political and ideological structures that overdetermine our understanding of historical events and threaten human freedom.

There is something more than the supposed mere historical facts at stake in the debate about Eichmann. There are whole interpretive frameworks at stake, overarching narratives that try to grasp the morally abhorrent occurrences of the 20th century by fitting events and characters into the hermeneutic categories that cohere with prior philosophical and political commitments. As a I responded to Wolff,

Especially in the case of Eichmann, the question of the ontological status of both narrative and historical facts can cut both ways: despite the amount we know about the historical Eichmann, he remains elusive. And not because we lack total information about him, but because what is at stake for those in the debate about Arendt’s “the banality of evil” tends to be the meaning of Eichmann as character in the story of 20th century totalitarianism. Arendt’s account offends because her Eichmann doesn’t live up to the extreme and morally odious nature of the factual Holocaust. So we would like to hyperbolize Eichmann, as well as other doers of evil, to fit the image of the evil mastermind with which we are familiar from fictional accounts.

My point is not to draw a line in the sand between the two camps–between, say, Arendt’s philosophical account of Eichmann and the historical account–but rather to merely bring to our attention the complexity of any search for the historical person. Such a search is even more complicated when what we are after is to understand the manner of thinking and moral reasoning of a historical person. What could be more elusive, more rife with philosophical difficulties, than such a search as this? The futility of such a search moved Hegel to devote much of his Phenomenology of Spirit to developing a critique of intentionality, refocusing ethical life on the network of actions and structures of social and political relations that orient moral agency. In this way, I imagine Arendt could not avoid seeing the cold march of totalitarianism, with the calculated, machine-like processes of death it employed, reflected in the eyes of Eichmann.

And even if Arendt was fooled by Eichmann’s theatrical performance at the trial, I think it’s safe to say that insofar as Eichmann was a gear in the Holocaust machine, Arendt correctly perceived in him a lack of moral thoughtfulness. So my final comment to Wolff on the matter was: It seems plausible to me that a rational, purposeful, morally corrupt agency and a kind of unthinking banality could cohabit in the same person of Eichmann.

On this point, Wolff, Arendt, and I may all agree, as in his final response Wolff notes that this Eichmann debate raises “a very important question about the relation between the personal moral characteristics of individuals and the larger moral dimensions of institutions in which they play an important role.” Yes, the goals and intentions of individuals play a role, says Wolff, “but for the most part, structural, institutional, and ideological explanations are superior, and they save us from the simple-minded belief that things will get better if we just put nice people in charge.”

Well said, and I think Arendt may have been saying something similar but in a more roundabout way. She might only add this caveat, which is my paraphrase of an idea from the final chapter of her The Origins of Totalitarianism: while the understanding and critique of ideology are of utmost importance–because it is through ideology that unthinking individuals are captivated into a process in which they become soldiers in great moral catastrophes–in the end, the future lies with real men and women who alone have the power to break both ideological and physical chains in order to begin something new.

Let me anticipate Wolff’s objection to Arendt at this point: sometimes the individual’s intentions are powerless underneath the weight of existing structures and relations. In other words, not only is it not enough to be a nice person, but it is also not enough to be one of the thinking, morally well-oriented individuals (as opposed to an unthinking Eichmann) in which Arendt at times seems to place her hope. This may be where Arendt could use a dose of Hegelian-Marxian insight with her Kantianism: sometimes it will take a community of people transforming the existing structures and institutions to produce real change. But she had obvious reservations about these “social” grounds for historical change, owing to her same concern with totalitarianism and ideology.

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