Teaching Hannah Arendt Underground08-04-2019
By Samantha Hill
For the past two days I’ve been teaching Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism for the tuition free summer school program at The University of the Underground and The Hannah Arendt Center, at The School for Poetic Computation in NYC.
Origins was Hannah Arendt’s first major work and it was published the same year she received American citizenship in 1951. The book is really three books in one, divided into “Antisemitism”, “Imperialism”, and “Totalitarianism”. Arendt did not want to write a history of fascism or totalitarianism in the 20th century, instead she offered a portrait of the various elements that crystallized together in order to produce the phenomenal appearance of fascism and totalitarianism at that precise historical moment. Among the elements she identifies, she talks about the transformation of race-thinking into racism, assimilation among the Jewish people in Europe, the imperialist mentality of expansionism that grounded the 19th century notion of the nation-state, and the ensuing boomerang effect that destabilized political institutions, eroded class society, and led to the decline of the nation-state. At the end of her argument, she turns to loneliness. Loneliness, Arendt argues, is the undercurrent of totalitarianism movements, because loneliness makes us vulnerable to ideological rhetoric. Arendt describes this loneliness as a loss of movement: A loss of movement in thinking, and a loss of movement in the world. Loneliness means we lose our ability to experience the world, because we are cut off from moving it, and when we are cut off from moving in the world, we lose the ability to move in thinking. Arendt writes:
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
The incredible constellation of students, artists, activists, musicians, in the classes asked a number of probing questions, thinking about Arendt within the context of our contemporary political situation today. We talked about the rise of illiberalism and how the nation-state is being transformed now. We talked about changes in global finance and the restructuring of our economy, which has made a new form of imperialism possible. And we talked about how social media technologies are transforming public and private life, fundamentally altering the way that we experience the world.
After two days of discussion, I was reminded of the great lesson in Origins often overlooked. As I emphasized to the students, what is so incredible about Arendt’s masterpiece is its form. It is a text to think with, written in a fluid way, to be continuously engaged. And this element contributes to its timelessness. As Arendt writes in her preface to the first part of Origins, “This book then is limited in time and place as well as in subject matter.” Origins is not a road map to look at, and Arendt’s approach in understanding is just as important for fighting illiberalism, fascism, and totalitarianism as the various elements she describes.
For Arendt loving the world means coming face-to-face with the world as it is rather than as we might wish it to be. “This is the reality in which we live,” she writes. “And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain.” Arendt teaches us how to be present and tireless thinkers, constantly returning to the subjects (and objects) of contemplation.
About The University of the Underground
How can we activate new political imaginaries beyond traditional institutional spaces?
This August the Hannah Arendt Center has teamed up with The University of the Underground to offer a month-long, tuition free summer school on Post-Nation States. The 4-week program is inspired by Hannah Arendt’s commitment to plurality in thinking and her conception of action which teaches us that to act is to begin something new in the world. As we witness the global emergence of illiberal regimes, resurgence of authoritarian politics, the collapse of civil discourse, and ability to discern fact from fiction, many have turned to the thinking of Hannah Arendt to begin to understand our historical moment. With support from the Overthrown Boxing Club, The School for Poetic Computation, UNICEF, and UN Global Compact, and contributions from private donors, 15 international artists, activists, magicians, musicians, and philosophers have gathered in NYC for the next four weeks to think about what the Nation State means today. They will approach their study in the boxing ring, at poetry slams, visiting the Pentagon, and the United Nations, in addition to lecture series, society balls, and music making, while working on a concept book/zine, and/or performance to be presented at the end of the month.
Learn more about the University of the Underground >>