The banality of banality; or, big causes from little effects

by CarlD

“The text has disappeared under the interpretation.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Existentialism is back on my radar, for a couple proximate reasons. First, because I’ve got a really good student at the moment who’s both motivated and capable to do something more interesting with feminism than tribalize her grievances. So I showed her to Beauvoir and prompted her to make sense of a feminism fundamentally critical of femininity. Second, because in my ‘isms’ reading circle we’ve just gotten to existentialism (via liberalism, conservatism, communitarianism, feminism, communism, and anarchism), so I’ve been re-reading some Sartre (“Existentialism is a Humanism”), Beauvoir (Second Sex intro), and Camus (“The Myth of Sisyphus,” The Stranger). And third, because Hannah Arendt has been popping up a lot lately, via renewed scholarly interest in Eichmann in Jerusalem and the ‘banality of evil’ thesis.

It’s of the latter I now write, motivated by equal parts fascination, perplexity, and pique. This being a blog I’m not going to get all scholarly and construct a ponderously authoritativish argument. For what it’s worth, I was raised by a guy who wrote a book on Camus, so my conversation with existentialists has a certain family at the dinner table familiarity to it. I haven’t read everything Arendt wrote any more than you read everything your scholar aunt wrote (sorry I haven’t read everything you wrote, Aunt Ann Ferguson). There may be surprises there and there are certainly disagreements, but the premises of the discussion are embedded deep down in the basic premises of pre-reflective selfhood. We argue about what to do with them, not about them. And there are ways of not getting existentialism that are, y’know, banal to me.

My first copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem was so marked up, so conversed with in the margins, so thoroughly representative in that intertext of how I think about the world, that I passed it on to my most cherished student when she went away to grad school and I wasn’t sure I’d ever see her again. Then got another copy and marked that one up too. When I first read it the banality of evil thesis gave me a tool for understanding the world that fit my hand right away, as if the calluses of that work were somehow epigenetically already emergent there. Its two strands – that moral personhood is only achieved through responsible, attentive engagement, and that no part of that project can be laid off on any other entity – seemed both obvious to me, and obviously damning to so many human outrages large and small. Yet also a reminder that I didn’t get to sit in easy, disengaged judgment; that the attentive engagement I was responsible for meant I needed to understand first, and that project is never done.

So. Corey Robin is, as usual, doing some good work of a sort with this at his own blog and at Crooked Timber. The issue in the particular post I just linked, a response to two recent books, is whether Arendt was taken in by Eichmann’s act: whether she was a dupe who failed to understand the enormity of his vocation for evil, and therefore wrote him off as a clueless drudge unaware of the scope of his crimes, rather than the intentional, calculating monster he was. There are several fatal confounds built into that last sentence, but for now let’s move on.

Robin’s good work is to show that it makes no essential difference to Arendt’s conclusion whether Eichmann was speaking himself truly or shilling a character at the trial. Either he was someone who in the first place wasn’t clear on the enormity of his crimes, or he was someone who in awareness of that fact thought he could get the court to sympathize with him, therefore not actually getting the enormity of his crimes. Either way, Eichmann was both ethically deranged and admittedly participant in enormous crimes. So either way he was evil, the Holocaust was evil, and Arendt was on it.

Again, the point is clear: if Eichmann is sincere, he’s a fool who punishes himself with the thought that he once slapped a Jew’s face but sleeps peacefully over the fact that he shipped millions of Jews to their death; if he’s lying, he’s also a fool who thinks that his performance of remorse over slapping a Jew would somehow weigh against, in the judgment of the court, his shipment of millions of Jews to their death. In either case, he hasn’t grappled with the enormity of his crime.

It’s really nice of Robin to translate Arendt into his own Anglo-American liberalism and make her intelligible there; this may even be appropriate, given that the attack on her comes from within the righteous quasi-religious certainties of liberal or social-democratic moralizing. But Arendt’s argument was not based on Anglo-American liberalism, nor even on ethical leftism. It was premised on a distinct kind of activist humanism in the Kant / Hegel / Schopenhauer / Nietzsche trajectory that also led to the existentialists Arendt hung out with. These folks knew their Nietzsche. They knew that God was dead. They had been beyond good and evil their whole thinking lives. They therefore knew damn well that there was something pathetic and clueless about slapping the evil label on troublesome stuff, as if that got it all nicely contained and managed – as if we knew already what that meant and how to handle it, as if delivering the j’accuse enacted a reality more fundamental than the messiness of our beings together.

Camus didn’t talk about evil at all. As I’m reminded as I read through “Myth of Sisyphus” and The Stranger again, at the macro level he was interested in absurdity, the collapse and absence of any ultimate foundation for meaning or ethical choice. At the micro level he was interested in thoughtlessness, the brutalities and cruelties large and small we inflict on each other because we haven’t taken responsibility for ourselves in relation to others.

And why was Eichmann’s evil banal? Robin tells us: because it was thoughtless.

Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.

Good. But what does this mean to Robin? That Eichmann was, possibly, just a schlemiel. But that can’t be right, because big effects like the Holocaust can’t come from little causes like that. But that’s not what Arendt says, and strangely, it’s not what she means, either. Arendt is arguing precisely that big effects can emerge from little causes; in fact, that this is routinely what happens. This is why, for her, it doesn’t get any worse than thoughtlessness. Robin thinks he needs to rehabilitate Eichmann’s evil given that he might just have been a schlemiel. He reads thoughtlessness as a kind of bourgeois party foul, inattention to the magnitude of his crimes as a tic or trick that needs to be explained away to get to the heart of the matter. But for Arendt, like for Camus, the thoughtlessness and inattention ARE the heart of the matter. Eichmann’s dereliction of thought and attention meant that, no matter how cunning or effective he may have been or not been, he was incapable of responsible presence in the world with others. This failing is not minimized, but intensely magnified, if God is dead and we have nothing but our intelligence and relationships with others to construct an ethical life out of. Add some power and all scales of mischief ensue. Far from threatening to let Eichmann off the hook by calling him ‘merely’ thoughtless and inattentive, Arendt damned him as decisively as the conceptual materials at her disposal made possible.

It’s certainly the case that no one of a religious or quasi-religious cast of mind will find this a satisfying argument. If only the narratives of good and evil will do, have at it. But Arendt paid attention to Eichmann, and thought about him, rather than installing him as an outsize cause in a pat morality tale. And it’s thoughtless and inattentive to accuse Arendt of being a bad foundational moralist, when she had no interest in being anything of the kind.

Note: for a cool takedown of the liberal inability to understand distributed mass action except through inflated personal responsibility, and a partial takedown of Arendt for addressing this via Eichmann as an imperfect case to demonstrate the point, with bonus reflections on how Marx handled such partial theorizing through the concept of the fetish, see Uncomfortable Science.


2 Comments to “The banality of banality; or, big causes from little effects”

  1. So much better! I’m a miserable failure. Not that it matters.

  2. Since this post turns out to have been a personal rumination, adding here a pointer to that great line from that alien (was it Heinlein? Stranger in a Strange Land?) who takes in some official humans fussing about some bullshit or other and remarks “You haven’t thought this through.” This has stuck with me so persistently and compellingly for so long that it would go great on my tombstone. If I had one of those.

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