Group love

by Carl Dyke

In a nice long review article in The New Yorker I just came across a quote that resonated deeply with me:

I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective…. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.

This was Hannah Arendt, accepting an accusation that she lacked love of the Jewish people. To express the thought, I have nothing to add: I agree completely; which is perhaps ironic in the context of the reviewer’s argument that Arendt’s deep commitment to impersonality was actually the product of her personal biography.

I mean, of course it was. Biography always explains where ideas came from and never explains why one person’s idea is persuasive to someone else who didn’t share the details of their life.

In my world history sections I’ve been doing my usual sales schtick where I ask why we study history, then break down the familiar, unpersuasive advertising-copy answers to arrive at the (foregone, for so many of the students) conclusion that history is useless; only to revive it, like a phoenix from the ashes, by arguing that history’s uselessness is the very best thing about it.

That’s another post; here I’m interested in one particular way the conversation about the “knowing where we came from” cliche’ went. We were talking about my multiethnic background and whether it was somehow significant about me that among my mongrel northern European ancestry was some fashionable Scottishness. Is that ‘my culture’ somehow, given that to have any of it other than the reddish beard and bad skin for sun I’d have to learn it like any other foreigner? Why Scottish rather than German, which is also in there — except that there’s no useful resonance in being German? And what to make of my closer heritage from my German grandma, who was a jerk? Perhaps all Germans are jerks? I’ve got some attention now, needless to say.

Arendt was German, of course, and so was Einstein, and not a jerk by all reports. I’d rather hitch my wagon to those guys, you betcha, brilliant mind over here like all of Hannah’s and Albert’s peeps. Or to the great-grandpa on the other side of the family who discovered the glacier. Wait, am I supposed to be personally proud of that? Why? I do find pennies sometimes, and I don’t mind being cold every so often. Can I get a little respect over here?

There are ways in which Arendt’s radical individualism and suspicion of group entanglements can read like Ayn Rand Lite, and as both a historian and a sociologist I do know how deeply and intricately structured our agency is. Still, I am so sympathetic, intellectually and emotionally, to Arendt’s insistence on committing her affection and loyalty only specifically: how do I know in the abstract if any given affiliation carries enough substantive similarity to warrant the same response from me? My regard is an accomplishment, not an entitlement; it has to be earned. This is why I refused offers to join fraternities in college: I’m not interested in being friends with people I don’t like just because we wear the same sweater. If you’re a jerk you don’t stop being a jerk because we live in the same house.

Along the same lines I also sympathize with Arendt’s scorn for the mischief collective identity can cause, as for example in the banning of Arab parties from upcoming Israeli elections because their opposition to the current war is taken as support for terrorism. No doubt some Israeli Arabs have indeed sold out their critical intelligence for blind allegiance to ‘their people’. And now we have proof positive that they are joined in this procedure by at least a few Jews.

9 Comments to “Group love”

  1. What strikes me about this particular quote is the way in which it restricts love to friends and thus discounts love of family, given, one supposes, that a family is the smallest collective within which love is supposed to be owed, instead of freely offered and received. I note how much Arendt’s position depends on a radically individualistic worldview, which assumes a primary contradiction between the individual and collective that removes all value from kinship or other particular loyalties that might conflict with each other. In this worldview, the personal and political are discrete, the former the realm of love rooted in friendship, the latter an arena in which individuals compete for respect, but both are grounded in the individual. There are no compelling social facts.

  2. John, that’s about the best short explication of Arendt I’ve seen.

    She’s obviously bound up in the Durkheimian process of individualization, and only her focus on respect, in the ancient Greek, tragic sense, saves her from anomie. But she makes the most sense in the context of the early 20th C experiments in the construction of total communities – her book on totalitarianism captures the horrors of fascism and communism from the standpoint of the human person as well as anything written.

    I don’t think her radical separation of politics and society is sustainable, and in many ways I think it’s dangerous. We are constructed, enabled and supported in community; to deny this is a kind of madness. But I admire her clarity about the limitations and distortions our communal obligations and identifications impose on us. She’s right, and a useful corrective to rosy fantasies about family and community and kumbaya and all that.

  3. Kurt Vonnegut (whose M.A. was in Anthropology, alas, and not Sociology, although that really ought not to matter) invented a lovely term for the sorts of communities I think we both abhor: “granfalloons”. From Wikipedia,

    “…a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless. The most common granfalloons are associations and societies based on a shared but ultimately fabricated premise. As examples, Vonnegut cites: “the Communist Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows—and any nation, anytime, anywhere.” A more general and oft-cited quote defines a granfalloon as “a proud and meaningless association of human beings.””

    Granfalloons oppose karasses, whose connection is based on a shared mission or purpose (knowingly or unknowingly).

    One of my silly professional goals is to work Vonnegut into a sociology class I teach. He was cited by Noble in Forces of Production, a book about the introduction of numerically controlled machine tools as a second attempt at automation after the “player piano” style tools Vonnegut discussed in “Player Piano” were deemed failures. Noble even wrote Vonnegut to get his take on the whole thing, as Vonnegut had been a PR man for GE during part of the relevant period. But I think Bokononism is the way to go, for introducing Vonnegut into Sociology. That or some of his essays about fights between couples happening because we need communities, e.g.:

    A husband, a wife and some kids is not a family; it’s a terribly vulnerable survival unit. Now those of you who get married or are married, when you fight with your spouse, what each of you will be saying to the other one actually is, ”You’re not enough people. You’re only one person. I should have hundreds of people around.”

  4. Nice call, Dan.

    ”You’re not enough people. You’re only one person. I should have hundreds of people around.”

    Eek! I struggled through 18 years of my first marriage failing to be more than one person. You know, I love Vonnegut the same way I love Arendt: with head ducked and one eye squeezed shut. Too painfully right about any number of my least admirable quirks; and in elevating grumpiness to high art, not really possible to live with.

  5. Such intimate revelations about your life, Carl. It was nice seeing a familiar “face” at the Larval Subjects kerfuffle, now I feel as though you fighting along side striking silent yet deadly blows here and there… Unless of course you also thought that I was pulling stuff out of my ass and being a brute, then I truly have no friends.

  6. Oh yeah Mikhail, heart laid bare and all that .

    Re: the kerfuffle, we all like our brainchildren to meet with unconditional approval. I admire his ambition. But I like your style, and I think he’s eventually going to need to be able to answer questions like yours and tougher still if he wants to invent new philosophies and have them be persuasive, rather than play with words, impress a little pack of groupies and perhaps found a cult. He’s gone public with it, so it’s fair game at this point.

    You know I’m also not all that impressed with philosophy as an ongoing site of knowledge-production, so your more historical orientation is simpatico to me. And sure enough, as far as I can tell, behind the Verbiage the current effort is conceptually parasitic on Latour and science studies. That’s a good choice for where the action is; but what’s the utility of trying to drag them back into the morass of ontological speculation? Well, at this point perhaps the owl of Minerva is flying in the dead dark of night. Or if it’s really a project of transportation/translation, reaching backward to rescue philosophers from their dogmatic slumbers and yank them up into the au courant, that’s worth a try but good luck wit it. And for that he’ll really have to be more patient and market-savvy about the target audience.

  7. Note, by the way, that in the old days when someone published a new philosophical system they did it at the speed of horse and movable type. Now they do it in realtime and the feedback is instant and usually from the hip. Therefore I’m sympathetic with prickly defenses, but don’t we also want that instant feedback? Isn’t that what blogs are for? Very confusing.

  8. I suppose if I propose any sort of new philosophical view, I would more than welcome comments as tough as they would come – I mean my style is somewhat confrontational, but it is historically informed through multiple example of philosophical debates of the past (and present) – I find it strange that someone would take a statement like “I think what you are saying is incorrect” as “I think you are an idiot” – I thought people of our profession, and probably yours as well, should be able to distinguish between critique of views and critique of persons: first usually takes place officially and second is reserved for private drinks conversation/evaluative summary of the debate…

  9. Well look, I’m with you on that. I think you’ve read the tradition right too. Of course that confrontational style has been criticized, notably by women, as a strategy of exclusion! Cooperation is also a good way to think together and doesn’t require the same macho veneer.

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