Saturday, March 04, 2006

Pluralities, Singularities

When I set Mill and Kristeva side by side, I was not unaware of a certain tension, or even, one might say, a vital difference. (Mill's attack on the customary is picked up by Appiah, by the way, so I expect I'll be revisiting it in the coming months.) I've been thinking about oneness, twoness, and the question of whether we ought to regard freedom as gendered, and whether the maternal needs explaining, or whether the paternal isn't now in need of some clarification. Do we need a defense of masculine freedom as such? Well, it hardly seems to be on the verge of extinction, but perhaps a clarification wouldn't hurt.

Leaving my own inchoate musings aside for the moment, the latest issue of Culture Machine is devoted to the topic of Community. The editor, Doroto Glowacka, has contributed a rumination entitled Community and the Work of Death: Thanato-Ontology in Hannah Arendt and Jean Luc Nancy. Glowacka's interpretation of plurality and natality according to Arendt appears not to be tremendously divergent from mine (sloppily presented here) or Kristeva's. Thus I was a bit surprised to see Glowacka set aside Arendt's insight. The reason she presents for doing so doesn't persuade me that she's not missing something essential. The offending passage in full:

One might object whether, in discussing the (tenuous) future of hyphenated communities such as "the Polish-Jewish" community in Poland, one should not focus on birth rather than death as the force that fosters positive growth of the hybrid social and political space, and here recourse to Arendt is again instructive. In The Human Condition, Arendt claims that it is natality rather than mortality that should be embraced as the central category of the social. Perhaps in another attempt to distance herself from Heidegger’s existential analytic of death, emblematic of solitary existence, Arendt argues that birth, not death, is the figure in which human community is "ontologically rooted" (1958: 9, 247). Natality, as the force and the promise of the new, is the condition of possibility of community’s moving forward into the future. This is a valid and even necessary direction for future investigation; for the time being, however, the fragile Polish-Jewish communal space, just like the communal space of other hybrid ethnic units named by Nancy, including those in Rwanda and Bosnia, is being forged out of the past marred by often horrendous acts of murder, the kinds of death that, like death in concentration camps, places in jeopardy the very essence of human existence as Being-with. This is why we have to rethink death first, the conclusion that Nancy himself seems to arrive at, when his reading of Heidegger’s Mitsein leads him inevitably to the discussion of death.

To be clear, I don't object to the analysis of death, dying or existential finitude. I feel that Glowacka brings together some keen insights, and her own thoughts on the matter are unquestionably valuable. But there is something fundamentally wrong I think with treating Arendt in terms of a "thanato-ontology," particularly when Arendt does indeed present a stark alternative to Heidegger's ontology in her concept of natality, which is one of her signal contributions to philosophy. Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism perhaps represents her most concerted effort to deal with the issue of genocide, but it's instructive to keep in mind that the original publication of that work preceded The Human Condition, and that Arendt's entire post-Holocaust oeuvre is marked by concern for the issue of genocide, including her reworking of her dissertation in later decades (published in 1996 as Love and Saint Augustine). Augustine's phrase initium ut esset homo creatus est, which found its way into Totalitarianism, was apparently not part of Arendt's original dissertation. So I think it's plain wrong to assume that Arendt's thinking about natality represents anything other than a fully informed, fully engaged reflection on the problem of the human condition.

That's about it, I guess. I haven't actually read any books by Jean-Luc Nancy, but Glowacka's outline of a rehabilitated Mitsein has piqued my curiosity. I think I'll be checking out Being Singular Plural for starters.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:26 PM.


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