Saturday, February 24, 2018

Banality As Evil


2. M: 

I've read it a couple of times and taught it once.  I think I tended to see it as a type of meditative non-fiction that is maybe closer to the modern novel that Arendt never wrote, than to an analytic report on a trial.  The account of how Eichmann got to be the high administrator of genocide is fascinating and does present a disturbing picture of how anonymous bureaucratic structures can be moved toward something like the Holocaust without disrupting the office work, so to speak.  In respect  of the Bellow/Sammler commentary, I think it's certainly arguable that the banality is a way of disguising evil for the modern secular world, but there is an unanswerable question at the heart of political philosophy, which is what a genuinely nihilistic modern politics would be.  As a political philosopher, Arendt was fascinated by the idea that it would look like basic administrative ability.

3.  Me:

This is a high powered comment that I appreciate.

Gotta ask: in what context or for what course did you teach it; and how did that go?

I wonder, and not to want to cavil, whether there may not be distinction between a journalistic account and an analytical account with the latter lining up with a meditative non fiction? Arendt’s “project” seems to have been at least in no small part to have advanced her thesis of Jewish under-reaction and complicity, and of, more so, rehabilitating her mentor’s idea of true evil lying in industrial capitalist modernity decimating the putative ideal, in Heidegger’s account, of a pastoral past unsullied by capitalism’s reduction of men and women into mere units of production. Wisse doesn’t say this as such but I do: namely, the corollary of this line of reasoning is the banality of evil. But I’d argue she does something like this as she highlights Norman Podhoretz’s characterizing Arendt’s book as the perversity of contrarian brilliance, throwing her obscuring of obvious and clearly understood categories like good and evil and what constitutes them back at her, borrowing her mo to take Eichmann In Jerusalem apart. 

I wonder if you’re missing something, at least from the standpoint of Wisse’s critique, in noting Eichmann’s rise as a case of bureaucratic upward mobility. She says Arendt downplays, advancing her thesis of bureaucratically following orders as a mode of evil, the lengths Eichmann undertook, including traveling to Jerusalem and reporting back on it, to become a “Jewish question” specialist and how vociferous he was in the pursuit of genocide even when orders came restraining him. Those incline to break the characterization of banality. 

The idea of banality disguising evil in the modern world is what I might call a second order point, no disrespect meant. I’d think the first order point is that genocide and operations and actions less than genocidal but unendingly horrifying, whether a few on many, many, or one or a few  on a more on or a few, are a main constituent of what evil is. That is, so to say, first order evil. That some states and entities euphemize the evil they do under numbing verbiage seems to me to be banality disguising evil.

Realism as a political school of thought is the closest we get to a nihilistic politics, I think. But in North American political theory it attracts its own counter thesis of a morality based politics sourced in spreading democratic values and in privileging morality over interest. Surely, realism isn’t so much nihilistic as it does the opposite of what its counter thesis holds: it privileges interest over mortality and, too, complicating the issue some, makes national interest coextensive with some notion of national morality. If Arendt was fascinated by the idea of a genuinely nihilistic political morality, that speaks to, I’d further tend to argue, an intellectual fancifulness, an intellectual remoteness, a level of abstraction, that all flaw her work.

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