Peg Birmingham: Arendt and Benjamin

History, Immortality, and Limits of Political Action

Thursday 08 March, 2012
6pm, $0

New School
6 East 16 St, Room D 1103

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In 1951 Hannah Arendt published her groundbreaking work, Origins of Totalitarianism,” and immediately drew the anger of just about every influential and well known thinker of that time. The book cut across the grain of the way almost every contemporary historian, political scientist, and even philosophers explained historical phenomena. In her famous reply to Eric Voegelin, Arendt admits that “one of the difficulties of the book is that it does not belong to any school and hardly uses any of the officially recognized or officially controversial instruments.” Surprising in the entire debate surrounding Arendt’s historiography is that Walter Benjamin is never mentioned. Not only is this surprising because Arendt explicitly mentions Benjamin’s essay, “On the Concept of History,’ in the middle of her all important analysis of imperialism in Origins, but also because her description of her methodology in the Prefaces to Origins as well as her reply to Eric Voegelin, makes it apparent that she is drawing heavily upon Benjamin’s essay. The claim of my lecture is that only by understanding the central place of Benjamin’s concept of history in Arendt’s work are we able to grasp what is truly of concern in her political thought. In other words, Arendt’s political thought is as equally concerned with the historical establishing of worldly immortality as it is with the natality made possible by political actors. More forcefully, for Arendt the very condition for the possibility of natality, of new beginnings, is an enduring world which is the concern not of the political actor but of the historian. This last insight, I claim, is the debt Arendt’s political thought owes to Benjamin’s “Theses on a Philosophy of History.”
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