Judgment, History, Memory: Arendt and Benjamin on Connecting Us to Our Past

Article excerpt

The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.

L. Wittgenstein1

I want to elucidate some connections between memory and judgment by presenting these themes in the work of Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. It is my sense that we can learn a lot about these themes from these two seminal thinkers, if not from what they share in common (something that might be called a "solution" to a particular problem, or even a "theory"), but at least from the serious questions that confronted both and which should confront us more often.

There is also a more indirect objective, which is more interpretive than theoretical. It is my thesis that by reading Arendt and Benjamin side-by-side we can begin to see how similar their concerns are. There is an unexplored conversation going on here, even if it is vastly asymmetrical. Implicit within my argument below is the notion that Walter Benjamin had a tremendous impact on the thought of Hannah Arendt, even if he did not live long enough for her to fully reciprocate.2 We might say that the memory of Benjamin and his tragic death was moving beneath much of Arendt's later work.

To outline the connections between memory and judgment in the writings of these two figures, I propose beginning with Arendt. I will detail her theory of judgment in its "two strands," that of actor and spectator. Here I will show how this theory of judgment relates to Arendt's critical perspective on modernity. I argue that Arendt developed a more detached theory of judgment in her later work as a response to the diminished conditions for situated or actor judgment characteristic of late modernity, but that the very detachment of this new spectator-judgment could not be an adequate solution even on Arendt's own terms. At this point, I will introduce Benjamin's critical-redemptive historiography as based on a similar problematic as Arendt's formulation of judgment. Benjamin oscillates between detachment and situatedness, but, as I will argue, attempts to resolve this through the concept of involuntary memory which links the actor to the past without making them wholly situated within that past. Finally, I conclude with some reflections on the place that this concept of involuntary memory could have in Arendt's own thought.

Hannah Arendt's Theory of Historical Judgment

One of Hannah Arendt's most unique and enduring contributions to political thought is her concept of action and it is through this concept that she first introduces the faculty of judgment. Action is public, collective, spontaneous, and equalizing. The realm of action is carefully defined against that of labor and work. While labor aims at the creation and sustenance of mere life,3 and work is subordinate to the ends it serves,4 only action is wholly free since it is not done for any instrumental purpose, but only for its own sake. "Men are free. .. as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same."5 In action, human beings appear in a public space where they manifest their plurality through recognition by others.6 However, it is precisely through this space of differentiation and plurality that a measure of artificial equality can be created and sustained. The realm of action is the realm of the "equality of unequals"-the appearance of those "who stand in need of being 'equalized' in certain respects and for specific purposes."7

The artificial equality of the realm of action allows speech, rather than force or violence, to prevail and it is in respect to the manifestation of speech that judgment makes its first interjection. In the realm of action, speech serves a dual purpose: expressive and communicative.8 As an expressive device, speech is the means through which humans may manifest themselves before others in their particularity so as to be judged. Arendt writes that "speech and action reveal this unique distinctness. …