Speaking through the Mask: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Social Identity

Speaking through the Mask: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Social Identity

Speaking through the Mask: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Social Identity

Speaking through the Mask: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Social Identity

Synopsis

Hannah Arendt was famously resistant to both psychoanalysis and feminism. Nonetheless, psychoanalytic feminist theory can offer a new interpretive strategy for deconstructing her equally famous opposition between the social and the political. Supplementing critical readings of Arendt's most significant texts (including The Human Condition, On Revolution, Rahel Varnhagen, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem, and The Life of the Mind) with the insights of contemporary psychoanalytic, feminist, and social theorists, Norma Claire Moruzzi reconstitutes the relationship in Arendt's texts between constructed social identity and political agency. Moruzzi uses Julia Kristeva's writings on abjection to clarify the textual dynamic in Arendt's work that constructs the social as a natural threat; Joan Riviere's and Mary Ann Doane's work on feminine masquerade amplify the theoretical possibilities implicit in Arendt's own discussion of the public, political mask. In a bold interdisciplinary synthesis, Moruzzi develops the social applications of a concept (the mask) Arendt had described as limited to the strictly political realm: a new conception of (political) agency as (social) masquerade, traced through the marginal but emblematic textual figures who themselves enact the politics of social identity.

Excerpt

This book is a political reading of Hannah Arendt. Its purpose is both to read her works against themselves, in order to break down some of the strong distinctions that are often taken to be emblematic of her thought, and to restore the political vibrancy to contemporary understandings of her thinking. Supplementing critical readings of several of Arendt’s most significant political texts with the insights of contemporary psychoanalytic, feminist, and social theorists, it reconstitutes the relationship between constructed social identity (whether of gender, religion, ethnicity, race, or class) and political agency. This new relationship is facilitated by a concept of agency as masquerade. Developed out of Arendt’s own writings, this concept of the mask can resolve the apparent contradiction between social identity and individual political agency that haunts Arendt’s work, and so much of social theory today.

Much good work has been published lately on Arendt. But much of that work, part of the recent rediscovery of her writings, assimilates Arendt’s thought to the conventions of other established intellectual discourses. This has been a valuable exercise; indeed, it has been critical in recovering Arendt for a new audience. But Arendt was always adamantly independent, intellectually and politically, and there is a danger in assimilating her too well. In placing her initially within a discourse that might seem entirely foreign, I attempt to free the crux of her thinking for a different political project, at once radically opposed to conventional readings of Arendt’s texts and at the same time deeply in keeping with her own writing.

This project involves reconceptualizing Arendt’s work as both social and political theory. Arendt’s hostility to the social is notorious; it is established through explicit argument in On Revolution and underwrites most of her remarks in other texts about gender, race, and class. This apparent hostility to the forms of identity that have been politicized through modern social movements has led to Arendt’s thought being regarded as traditionally individualistic and only abstractly relevant to any rethinking of the politics of social power. This is a mistake. Arendt’s preoccupations were with the specific leveragings of power in historically defined circumstances. She was fascinated by individuals who re-created political . . .

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