Academic journal article New Formations

Hannah Arendt: Reflections on Ruin

Academic journal article New Formations

Hannah Arendt: Reflections on Ruin

Article excerpt

'The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, "natural" ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted'. (1) Thus runs a crucial passage, often cited, from Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. In it, she summarises the idea of natality with which her work is so closely associated--without, however, indicating that there is anything peculiar about attributing both normalcy and naturalness to ruin. Yet, there is something undeniably odd about this decisive phrase: 'normal, "natural" ruin'. None of these words is strange, taken alone; but in combination with one another they imply that things willy nilly destroy themselves whenever they take their normal course. The strangeness of the phrase is localised in its scare quotes, which indicate that natural is used in an unnatural sense: nature is not naturally ruinous; on the contrary, it moves in predictable cycles of decay and rebirth. And something similar is true of Arendt's use of language: 'Natural' in quotation marks also suspends the normal course of speech, which consists in simply saying things without pointing out that one is saying them. As for the term ruin, it suggests that Arendt is indulging in the kind of melancholic self-absorption she everywhere repudiates--especially in her critique of late German romanticism, with its cult of ruined castles, cathedrals, and personalities.

The phrase 'normal, "natural" ruin' may be seen to express in highly abbreviated form a perplexing dimension of Arendt's work as a whole--from her strange and stunning portrait of Rahel Varnhagen, who attached herself to Bildung ('culture,' 'self-development') in the face of social pariahdom, to her profoundly unsettling report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which serves as the bleak culmination to her reflections on the ruinous character of automatic thought-processes. The phrase in any case captures the founding thought of The Human Condition, the urgency of which derives from a sense that the normal character of ruin has been overlooked. Or perhaps worse--that it has become imperceptible. What Arendt then seeks to identify, in the simplest terms, is a counter-movement to the normal and 'natural' course of things, which inevitably leads to their collapse. As the following essay seeks to show, this effort runs like a red thread through Arendt's career, beginning with her adoption and transformation of certain lines of thought she encountered in the early lectures of Martin Heidegger; appearing in conjunction with extensive reflection on the German idea of Bildung; forming the background of her altogether positive reception of Franz Kafka's writings; and ultimately expressing itself with the greatest degree of intensity in her response to the sight of Adolf Eichmann, who uses one 'gebildete' turn of speech after another. Disparate though they may be, all of these reflections aim to show that a counter-movement to ruin can be discovered--and that it ultimately lies only in the freedom of human beings, never in anything that they have instituted for their protection, least of all the protection of their freedom.

THE PARADOX OF FALLENNESS

At the conclusion of his lectures from the Winter semester of 1921-22, announced under the title Phenomenological Interpretations of Aristotle: An Introduction to Phenomenological Research, Heidegger begins an analysis of what he calls 'ruination' (Ruinanz). (2) This term does not appear in Being and Time nor, to my knowledge, can it be found in any of his subsequent publications; but it nevertheless points toward the goal of all of his early work: the goal, namely, of discovering a 'formal indication' of the counter-movement to the 'ruination' that is characteristic of factical life in general. In other words, according to the young Heidegger, 'ruination' is normal and 'natural'. As Heidegger emphasizes in the aforementioned series of lectures, Ruinanz is derived from a formalisation of the German term Sturz, that is, 'fall' or 'collapse'. …

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