Disruption and Remembrance in Arendt’s Theory of Political Action
Trevor Tchir’s monograph, “Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Political Action”, covers a wide spectrum of Arendt’s works in providing a framework for her theory of political action. Tchir draws upon a range of thinkers, such as Heidegger, Kant, Augustine and Montesquieu, who influenced aspects of Arendt’s theory, and upon those thinkers whom Arendt explicitly criticized, such as Marx, to demonstrate how she both breaks with the tradition of western political thought and recollects and revises some of the concepts within that tradition in order to re-conceptualize “political action” in the modern age of secular politics. Thus, Tchir also highlights how Arendt transforms and revises aspects of others’ philosophies, in significant ways, when she does borrow from them. Moreover, his inclusion of commentary and criticisms of Arendt’s approach to political action by numerous contemporary thinkers helps him to illuminate the tensions within Arendt’s thought and to delineate his own thesis and argument. However, much of his book is devoted to an exegesis and interpretation of Arendt’s diverse works in respect to her theory of political action, as she encounters the Western tradition of political thought in general, and the aforementioned thinkers in particular. Although he slowly integrates his own voice into his interpretation, it isn’t until the final chapter of the book that he fully draws out how the tensions within Arendt’s thought are fruitful for contemporary politics.
Although Tchir’s book is very comprehensive in its approach to Arendt’s theory of political action, much of the territory he covers has been traversed by other commentators, especially as regards Arendt’s conceptual distinctions between the public and the private sphere, and the political and social/economic spheres. His own primary contribution to the extensive literature on Arendt is his discussion, in chapter 3, of the importance of the metaphor of the “daimon”, as introduced in The Human Condition in respect to the political actor, as she individuates herself through speech and action in the public sphere of a plurality of spectators. (89) The metaphor of the “daimon” is used by Arendt to indicate how the political actor does not have a self transparent to herself, but, whose self can only be “known” through the diverse judgments and narratives of the plurality of spectators to her actions, as if the “daimon” sat on her shoulder concealed from her view but visible to all those who witness her. Tchir also contends that that this metaphor of the daimon gestures towards a divine or transcendent origin of the capacity of humans to act and think (and, thereby, judge the actions of the actor that appear in the political sphere). The daimon, as a mediator between men and gods, expresses that the origins of these human capacities are ultimately unknowable. In this way, Arendt encounters the residual language of transcendence in modern political thought. Within the context of modern revolutions, such as the French Revolution and American Revolution, there was an overturning of traditional authority of religion within the realm of politics, but the language of rights often retained an appeal to transcendent sources of these “natural” rights of mankind. (12) Thus, there is a tension within Arendt’s own thought on the relationship of the secular and the religious within modern politics, and within political theory generally in the modern era.
This also opens the question as to whether or not there are any “foundations” to political theory in the modern age. However, this enables Arendt to introduce a conception of freedom suitable to an age without such religious, metaphysical, or natural foundations – one that is self-grounding within a political space of appearances (rather than grounded in an invisible sphere of divine or metaphysical laws). Her notion of freedom is one that is not based on a notion of the will that masters itself or directs its actions from pre-determined principles, whether metaphysical or religious or based on reason or nature, nor is it grounded in a notion of political sovereignty, where a ruler crafts laws which subjects obey. It is this western political tradition of freedom that lies in sovereignty and rule, one that promotes relationships of domination and an illusory control over what the subjects can do and their environment, that she is disrupting, while retrieving a freedom that arises from isonomia, that is, the agonistic politics that occurs in a sphere of formal equality, as practiced in ancient Greece. (135) The disclosure of the unique, daimonic “who” is the disclosure of a non-sovereign self.
However, Tchir also shows how the metaphor of the “daimon” has existential import for human dignity and the “meaning” of existence for humans in a world of uncertainty and contingency, rather than in a world where moral or religious absolutes, whether based on revelation or reason, could guide our political actions and insure mastery. (32) This existential impact demonstrates why the realm of political action is so centrally important to human existence for Hannah Arendt, and it is why she sometimes characterizes the “political world” as also a “spiritual world”. (79) It would seem to me that this latter characterization would make the divine element in human existence immanent rather than transcendent, and would point to a fundamental mystery at the core of human existence which amplifies its uncertainty and makes complete unconcealment of origins impossible.(84) Nonetheless, Tchir argues by the end of his book that Arendt would not exclude religion from the public sphere, and this is important to understanding the conduct of politics in today’s world. At the same time, he makes the point that uncertainty plays a central role in Arendt’s re-conceptualization of political action, as the success of any political actions remain uncertain and their effects remain unpredictable in an agonistic political world of plurality of actors and spectators with conflicting wills and cross-purposes. (25) Thus, Arendt has an understanding of both politics and existence as based in a fragility of a common political world shared by a plurality of actors and spectators, and a vulnerability of humans in the face of their “passive givenness” and in their attempts to actualize their historically situated possibilities from that givenness through action. (32) Although she dispenses with a concept of “human nature” as the basis of the political, she does not argue that political action can fundamentally change our givenness so much as actively disclose our individuality, which exceeds this givenness. This actualization of our individuality remains opaque to each of us, as individual actors. However, through political action, we can assert our human dignity as we confront this givenness as well as when we encounter the contingencies of our historical situations.
Action itself, as characterized by natality, is the source of freedom, which is the other major focus of Tchir’s exegesis. If one of the ontological conditions of the political space of appearances is that of plurality, the other one is that of natality, as a spontaneous beginning, and the capacity to initiate or give birth to something new and unprecedented into a world that is otherwise characterized by natural or historical processes, chains of causes and effects, and normalizing routines. Arendt’s conception of natality is borrowed from the Christian tradition of miracles, as that which interrupts natural processes, especially as found in Augustine’s works. (24) This is how action is differentiated from behavior and from being simply another cause in a chain of causes and effects, although action has unpredictable and uncontrollable ramifications by setting off many chains of causes and effects in unprecedented ways. Through natality, new aspects of the shared world of appearances are themselves disclosed, along with the disclosure of the unique “who” of the actors. Thus, individuality is dependent upon the witnessing of others, and political freedom is relational. This is a realm that discloses “meaning” rather than “truth”, although Arendt will complicate this picture by insisting that spectators enlarge their mentality so that their interpretations deal with “facticity” rather than with inaccurate distortions of what happened. (173) However, one of Arendt’s presumptions appears to be that people want or seek such meaning in their lives, and not solely the accomplishment of goals, social or otherwise. This is another way in which the political realm is also a spiritual realm.
Although plurality is also a condition of the public sphere, individuation occurs within that public sphere as actors perform in front of spectators who are characterized by both their equality and distinction. (23) The shared world is not one of a common vision of the good shared by a predetermined community, as in communitarianism, (5) but one of a material world of cultural artifacts, which themselves are subject to interpretation by participants in that world, and the “web of interrelationships” that occurs in that world. “Distinction” is presupposed in the plurality of participants, while “equality” is a formal feature of the public sphere where all participants’ perspectives play a role, rather than one of material equality.
Fundamental to the possibility of individuation is Arendt’s distinction between the “existential who” and the “constative what” (4, 85). The “who” that is disclosed in the public sphere is not simply a collection of character traits and talents or of a pre-established identity, such as that of socioeconomic status, gender or race, which could be generally applied to similarly situated others, all of which would be an aspect of the person’s “whatness”. The “who” is disclosed through the performance of her acts and the virtuosity of her deeds in the political space of appearances and is not “made” as a product of a craft. The “who” transcends the “what”. However, the “meaning” of her acts is disclosed in the narratives, stories, and histories composed by spectators who judge her acts, and which show how these acts, in disclosing the principles that inspired them, serve as “valid examples” for future action within that community. (31) Tchir proposes that this plurality is not only a plurality of “opinions” (or doxa), although it is especially that, but also a plurality of “whats” that insert themselves into this public sphere wherein they can renegotiate their identities as “whats” through their individuating actions and judgments of actions. (6) In this manner, pluralities are not a diversity of predetermined “whats” along ethnic, racial, gender, economic or social lines, but the latter are not so much excluded from the public sphere as augmented and revised within that sphere. As Tchir will argue in chapter 6 of the book, it is important that spectators do not surrender their individual judgments of actions to the prejudices and “whats” of others, even though they should be taking into consideration all the diverse perspectives of those who are physically present in the public sphere, as well as the perspectives of past historical actors within that sphere. Thus, there is a nuanced attempt to make room for the entry of the whatness of participants into this sphere, without subordinating that sphere to their “whatness” or to what has been loosely called “identity politics” (my term, and not the author’s).
This public realm and its freedom are fragile because they can only be sustained by the renewal of actions and judgments within the sphere. The space of appearances has no institutional infrastructure that can guarantee its presence, although Arendt does comment on structures that may encourage or facilitate such a sphere, such as a legal framework that makes such free exchange of “opinions” possible. She proposes a “council system” in On Revolution. (28) She also comments upon those structures that tend to interfere with such a free exchange of “opinion”, such as parties and some schemes of political representation. Because Tchir’s thesis is focused on the existential implications of Arendt’s theory of political action, he tends to omit detailed discussion of alternative structures of governance implied by her theory, although he does make observations about potential deliberative spaces for global actors in his concluding chapter, and explains why Arendt proposed federalism rather than a world government as a means to insure a “right to have rights” in chapter 5.
Although this book is devoted to the disclosure of the “existential and unique who” in political action, it also attempts to characterize and clarify what constitutes political action, a subject of great controversy in the literature on Arendt. Political action is a performance that invokes inspiring principles, examples of which might include “honor, glory, equality, and excellence, but also hatred, fear, and distrust” (29). Through these examples of inspiring principles, it becomes evident that some principles might sustain freedom within the public sphere better than others. Along these lines, Arendt will suggest that the principle of “rectifying social inequality” will most likely destroy the public sphere, as she contends happened when the “impoverished Sans-Culottes entered the scene of the French Revolution. (152) When this principle inspires actions in the public sphere it tends to destroy the plurality of perspectives and opinions, and obliterate individuality through single-mindedness of an instrumental goal, and, it is here that we can see a tension between the who and what in the plurality of the public sphere. Despite Tchir’s own argument, Arendt seems to favor the plurality of opinions, which she does not treat as confined to socioeconomic factors or status. (136) I will reserve further discussion of Arendt’s view of the social and its relationship to the political to later in this review.
Actions thereby spring from principles, as understood by Montesquieu, but also may “exemplify” and “sustain a principle” (30). Although such principles are “too general to prescribe specific courses of action”, they are “greater and longer lasting than immediate ends”, thereby contributing to the continuity of the shared public world. (31) However, these principles are not transcendent metaphysical principles or determined by reason prior to action. They are exhibited in the actions themselves, and, thus, they too must be repeated in narratives to inspire future actions, and in those future actions themselves, in order to sustain their role in the public space. In this manner, political action is for the sake of itself – that is, for the sake of maintaining a sphere of plurality in which action can continue to occur, and for the sake of its inspiring principles. (26) Political action contains its own end, rather than occurring “in order” to achieve instrumental goals. (30) Some critics find this approach to political action empty, a criticism to which Tchir responds in chapters 5 and 6, and which I will address later in this review. However, his discussion of inspiring principles is one of the most interesting parts of his book, and one which he revisits in later chapters in responding to criticisms of the emptiness of the public sphere – what does anyone talk about there? – and to criticisms of the formal but not material equality of that sphere, which could influence who is included or excluded from that sphere and the communication that occurs within that sphere.
My above discussion of the “daimon” metaphor and its existential impact, as well as my discussion of freedom, plurality, natality, and the political space of appearances, are drawn primarily from the first three chapters of Tchir’s book, although, as I indicate above, I anticipate where Tchir is going in the rest of his book. Thereafter the book is organized by chapters on Arendt’s encounters and interactions with the thought of other philosophers within the Western tradition. The rest of my review will briefly survey some of the main points made in each of these chapters in order to draw out some of the main strands of the argument delineated above.
In chapter 4,”Aletheia: The Influence of Heidegger”, Tchir shows how “Arendt incorporates Heidegger’s notion of Dasein’s (the human being’s) resolute action as disclosure of both the `who’ of Dasein and of the action’s context” into her theory of political action. (97) Arendt’s attempt to “rescue political action from its historical and contemporary concealment” in conceptions of sovereignty bears an affinity to her teacher, Heidegger’s attempt to rescue Dasein from the historical concealment of Being. Both Heidegger and Arendt share a concern for “Aletheia“, as an “un-concealment” or “un-forgetting” (97), and with the various modes in which arche (sources) of Being can be disclosed. Arendt’s distinction between a “who” and a “what” is drawn from Heidegger, who, in turn, found it in Aristotle’s distinction between poiesis and praxis. In poeisis, an external product is produced by a process of what Arendt will call “work”, and in praxis, there is no external product to be generalized. Instead, the end lies within the activity itself, as Arendt characterizes political action. However, unlike Heidegger’s adoption of Aristotelian concepts, Arendt rejects the idea that action becomes “fully transparent”, (109) and proposes that “the judgment of spectators can indeed change.” (109) Moreover, Arendt’s notion of plurality, although influenced by Heidegger’s “notion of Mitsein (Being-with)”, significantly revises how the “who” is disclosed. For Heidegger, the authentic “who” of Dasein can only be disclosed by the contemplative withdrawal of the individual from the routine, normalizing discourses of the “everydayness” and “idle talk” of the “They”, while Arendt locates the disclosure of the daimonic “who” within the “web of relationships” and the plurality of opinions – that is, the talk – of the public world. “Talk” and “opinions” of ordinary members of a community can be valuable. (114) Moreover, Arendt “reverses Dasein’s primacy of `being-toward-death’, in favor of the notion of `natality’….”. (115)
In chapter 5, “Labor and `World Alienation”: Arendt’s Critique of Marx”, Tchir addresses Arendt’s distinctions between the social and the political, and between the public and the private, in the context of her critique of Marx’s conception of what she calls “socialized humanity”. (125) Arendt’s rejection of Marx’s conception of freedom rests partly on her prioritization of the disclosure of the individual in the political realm over the other realms of the Vita Activa, those of labor and work, which she claims that Marx favors. Labor is the realm of biological necessity, in which people are simply “specimens” to be preserved, so that Marx’s focus on labor and its liberation is misplaced. (130) Arendt proposes that one can only enter the public sphere where freedom occurs when biological and economic needs have already been met in the private sphere of labor. Whereas, in ancient times, all economic activity also took place in the private household, today economic activity is public, found in the realm of the “social”, which still addresses the arena of mere preservation of life. Although Arendt agrees with Marx that capitalism has had world alienating effects – it is through capitalism that economics entered the public sphere (129) – she sees his solution as “perpetuating” the problem by “glorifying labor”(126) and by focusing on the cultivating of talents (which are an aspect of “whatness”) as the source of freedom when the classless society is achieved, rather than upon political action and the disclosure of the “who” as the source of freedom. (135) By treating speech as inescapably determined by social relations of production” (127), Marx denies the possibility of an individual unique “who” who transcends the constative characteristics of that individual’s “whatness”, as well as denying the plurality of perspectives that constitute a political realm.
I cannot do justice to Tchir’s survey of the literature on this aspect of Arendt’s thought, or to how he indicates with which commentaries he agrees or disagrees. However, it is within this chapter, as well as the next chapter, that Tchir explicitly addresses issues of inclusion and exclusion within a public sphere, revisits the relationship between the “who” and the “what”, and complicates the latter distinction by the introduction of Arendt’s conception of a private “place” (133) from which we emerge to insert ourselves into the public sphere – is such a “place” an aspect of a person’s “what” or only a precondition to participating in the political world? After all, “For Arendt, it as though classes are as unavoidable as labor itself” (135), so are they aspects of “whatness” or of “place”? At the same time, she proposes that the expansion of technological and productive forces may make it possible to give every person in a society such a place, that is, to alleviate poverty to the extent that everybody may be able to “transcend” the sphere of preservation of “mere life” to that of political action and the freedom it entails. (133) This is not entirely unlike Marx’s prediction that the productive forces of capitalism will usher in an age of the end of poverty. In this way, Arendt does want the public sphere to be inclusive, but without sacrificing a plurality of opinion that isn’t reducible to self-interest or to the “whatness” of the participants.
Furthermore, Arendt claims that when social questions based on urgent needs enter the public sphere, they become dominated by the self-interests of those who need to preserve their “mere life”, and this lends itself to the violence and rage that occurred during the French Revolution. Arendt’s conception of non-sovereign freedom and political action are introduced just to reduce the role of violence and domination in political life, although she does realize that violence and exploitation played a role in the private sphere of ancient Greece, and can play a role in producing poverty. (156) Moreover, she doesn’t think that social questions and the elimination of poverty can be successfully eliminated through political means. (152)
However, what then is talked about in the political sphere? Her answer is that questions with no certain conclusions properly belong in the political sphere. (163) For example, the question of “adequate housing” has a certain solution (in Arendt’s view), so it should be dealt with administratively, while the question of “integrated housing” is a properly political issue. (163) In that Arendt considers the provision of “adequate housing” important to establishing a place for every potential participant to enter the public sphere, (156-157) she is not insensitive to social and economic questions, although she does ignore the possibility of normative dimensions to what counts as “adequate”, as well as ignoring the question as to whether or not there should be political interference in the economic housing market in order to provide adequate housing. (159) At the same time, she herself states there is no firm distinction between political and non-political issues and that engagements with one’s historical situation means that what is talked about in the public realm will vary over time. (160) However, one commentator, Lucy Cane, suggests that other inspiring principles than that of eliminating material equality, such as one of “solidarity”, could be disclosed in the actions of political actors in such a way to address some of the concerns of those who are oppressed or exploited. (161)
The problem remains as to whether the formal equality that characterizes the public sphere can be maintained without material equality, and this is where many commentators criticize Arendt. Moreover, there are other types of racial and gender oppression which could distort the exchanges of opinion within the public sphere. However, I suggest that many of Arendt’s critics on these points are operating under different assumptions as to what constitutes power and power relations than those of Arendt. Thus, Tchir’s analysis could benefit from a discussion of Arendt’s own conception of “power”, as numbers of people “acting in concert”, and as distinct from violence which relies on “implements”. (On Violence, 44-46) This would not resolve all the differences between Arendt and her critics, but it would further illuminate her disruption of sovereignty as the basis of freedom, and would help support those commentators who make a case for civil disobedience as political action along Arendtian lines. (139) The role of civil disobedience comes up in Tchir’s discussion of Arendt’s conception of the “right to have rights”, which is “the right to have one’s destiny not be decided merely by how one’s given `what’ is defined and ruled by an external authority but rather by interactions with others who will judge one based on their words and deeds and allow one’s unique `who’ to appear.” (141) The “right to have rights” is the right to live in such a framework, to belong to such a community, which is denied now to those who are stateless or refugees. I suggest that equalizing the conditions of participants within the public sphere might be facilitated by multiple public spheres, based not so much on the features of “whatness” as upon diverse material worlds of cultural artifacts that those with such identities might share, and then federate these various “councils” into larger public spheres, as some protest movements form coalitions with each other. In this way, participants could immanently let their individuality shine through many lights.
In chapter 6, “The Dignity of Doxa: Politicizing Kant’s Aesthetic Judgment”, Tchir addresses in more detail how the judgments of spectators occur. Arendt draws upon Kant’s conceptions of reflective and aesthetic judgments, adapting them to the political sphere, because reflective judgments are not determinative of actions, (177) they involve the use of the imagination, and they make possible the exercise of responsibility. (173) Although each spectator judges differently, and partly from the standpoint of their “whatness”, that is, social class, gender, race, religion, etc., the imagination allows each spectator to enlarge her mentality to take into consideration the perspectives of all those physically present or those past participants in the public sphere. Such an “enlarged mentality” (163) involves a position of “disinterestedness”,(179) one in which we achieve some “distance” by “forgetting ourselves” (180), which implies that we transcend self-interest and considerations of instrumentality or usefulness. (179-180) However, it is unclear how much it involves direct exchange of opinions within the public sphere. In any case, the spectator tries to assess the meaning of acts, but not from a “higher standpoint” than those who participant within the political space.
The “shared judging community” is the sensus communis, now detranscendentalized from Kant’s conception of it. (183) Again many commentators criticize Arendt’s conception of the judging community because of inequities in the position of different spectators in the communication among them.(182ff) However, the role of such inequities in distorting communications, depends partly on the relationship of “whats” and “who’s” within the public sphere, a situation that remains somewhat unresolved, despite the fact that Arendt doesn’t want communication to be marked by conflict among publicly pre-determined identities. However, equality (of a formal rather than material sort) may serve as an inspiring principle, as could mutual respect. (185) It would seem that the maintenance of such a space would require tolerance of potential conflict, openness to listening to different perspectives, and courage to act and retain the personal element in judging, in ways that would always be subject to subversion. (86) Consensus does not appear to be the aim of the judging community, so much as the disclosure of the meaning of their common world. Thus, in these ways, Tchir returns to existential questions.
In the end, there is no hard separation between the position of the actor and that of the spectator. (193) Arendt borrows Kant’s idea of an original compact, in such a way that the inspiring principles of this compact bring the actor and spectator together as one, and an actor can always become a spectator and vice versa. Moreover, a spectator’s judgments are always revisable. Arendt also appropriates Kant’s notion of “exemplary validity”, which implies that “particular deeds may be taken as valid examples by which to judge other cases.” (195) In this way, a tradition may be established, and this also plays a role in Arendt’s conception of history as storytelling that displays such valid examples.
In chapter 7, “Forgotten Fragments: Arendt’s Critique of Teleological Philosophies of History”, Tchir discusses how Arendt criticizes the philosophies of history of Kant, Hegel and Marx, which, according to her, eliminate the possibility of natality, that is, the spontaneous birth of the unprecedented and new that characterizes political action, and subordinate the freedom of the political sphere, which should be for its own sake and for the plurality of that sphere, to the telos of history, and to the agent of historical forces themselves as they march towards that ultimate end without regard to the plurality of humankind. Individuals are reduced to functions in the movement of history itself, one that lends itself to totalitarianism. She proposes an “alternative method of fragmentary historiography,” (205) as influenced by Walter Benjamin. It is from this alternative method that I have pulled the title of my book review, as I contend, and, I have tried to show in this review, how Arendt tends, in her very theory of political action, to perform the type of disruption of historical continuity that she says has occurred in the modern era, but, at the same time, retrieve some ancient practices to re-conceptualize political action and freedom. In so doing, she performs both an action and a judgment, which has generated, in turn, a diverse set of interpretations and judgments of her own “storytelling”, many of which Tchir surveys in his monograph.
In his concluding chapter, Tchir recapitulates some of his main points, and draws together some of the loose threads of his observations into a brief argument as to the relevance of Arendt’s theory of political action in today’s world, which is characterized by divisive discourses of populism; (236) disillusionment by people in a public sphere dominated by corporations and sensational media (242) and a neoliberal security state that relegates people to pre-determined categories of “whatness” in order to control their movements and to deny them freedom and access to a framework in which they can act and judge freely. He makes a few suggestions about the possibility of bringing Arendt’s conception of political action into the international arena, and religion into the public sphere without it dominating that sphere with absolute metaphysical principles. This chapter would be more fruitful if expanded, but, given the monumental job Tchir has already accomplished, it might be beyond the scope of his book to do so.
Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. Harcourt, Brace and Company, San Diego.
Frank Schalow’s new book, Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction, offers an important contribution to the philosophical study of addiction. While, as Schalow notes at the start of his work, the topic of addiction has spawned many studies from a variety of fields in the past years, relatively few of these have examined addiction using the methods of philosophy, and specifically, of phenomenology. Schalow argues that this leaves an important gap in our approaches to addiction, given that studies that consider addiction in purely physiological terms overlook the meaningful dimension of the addict’s experience, specifically, they fail to consider the life world of the addict. It is this lack that Schalow’s new book intends to redress.
Schalow uses phenomenological methods and concepts, primarily drawn from Heidegger’s Being and Time and later work on technology, to illuminate the phenomenon of addiction, often with considerable success. As the subtitle, “Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence,” suggests, Schalow is primarily interested in understanding addiction with respect to the body, the technological context of addiction, and the existential dimension of addiction. While anyone seeking a detailed account of the role of the body in addiction might be left wanting more from Schalow’s book, they will nevertheless find probing analyses of the role that technology and transcendence can play in understanding addiction. With respect to the former, Schalow argues that the prevalence of addiction in the present era ought to be considered a referendum on the role of technology in our culture. With respect to the latter, Schalow argues that the phenomenological concepts of transcendence and authenticity can provide a key to addiction treatment.
Schalow’s first five chapters offer a phenomenological diagnosis of addiction, while the final three begin to develop phenomenological principles of addiction treatment. The first chapter argues for the importance of a philosophical, as opposed to neurological or psychological, approach to addiction. Schalow does this, in part, through the contention that addiction ought to be understood as a cultural-historical phenomenon – a “historical and cultural transformation of our ‘way to be’” (4) – which therefore cannot adequately be understood merely in terms of the physiology of the body, but only in terms of the meaningful features of the addict’s life-world. Schalow makes clear from the first that he intends to broaden our concept of addiction and to stand the common sense appraisal of the place of addiction in our society on its head, via his claim that addiction ought to be understood as a way of being that is in a certain sense the norm for our society (9).
Chapter 2 begins work on the phenomenological study of addiction, showing how many of Heidegger’s key concepts from Being and Time provide the existential preconditions of addiction. Schalow’s central argument here is that the possibility of addiction is rooted in structures of Dasein common to addicts and non-addicts alike, namely everydayness and being-with-others. Specifically, Schalow proposes to understand addiction as “a permutation of inauthenticity or unownedness” (29). Similarly, addiction can be seen as rooted in being-with-others: dissimulating one’s self-responsibility in terms of conformity with the they-self, as described by Heidegger, creates an environment in which addiction can flourish. Further, Schalow shows how phenomenological analyses of spatiality, in terms of de-severance, and temporality, in terms of making-present, can illuminate the situation of the addict. Chapter 3 continues this work, specifically with regard to the “hook” of addiction. Schalow argues that the hook ought to be understood in terms of the concept of a “fetish,” insofar as one becomes “hooked” on a substance or process when it acquires a disproportionate significance in one’s life, when an object or process operates as a locus of attraction beyond its immediate meaning, e.g., as a means of escape or inducing satisfaction. For such mediate significances, fetishes rely on our capacity for fantasy, or imagination. In a commodity fetish, for example, a commercial object becomes invested with the meaning of a marker of economic status. This is only possible insofar as the imagination opens up a space of possible meanings for an object over and beyond its immediate significance. However, when the fetish supplants the fantasy, according to Schalow, the fetish closes off other possible meanings and becomes addictive. Insofar as the addict, in being fixated on this object, is taken in by it, rather than projecting a meaning for it, addiction is in Heidegger’s terms a form of “fallenness,” i.e., of being lived by the world rather than choosing oneself (62). Chapter 4 completes the existential analysis of addiction, focusing on self-understanding and being-with-others. Here, Schalow argues that addiction corresponds to a form of self-evasion familiar in terms of “denial.” At the same time, addiction often corresponds to inauthentic modes of relation to others, e.g., in terms of leaping-in familiar as a kind of “co-dependency.”
In chapter 5, Schalow turns to the technological dimension of his project. As I indicated above, his claim is that addiction can be considered as a referendum on technology (91), or in other words, the ubiquity of addiction in our society can only be understood in terms of its technological backdrop. Schalow makes this point by connecting technology and addiction in a number of ways. First, new technologies often facilitate certain kinds of addiction that pre-exist those technologies, as, e.g., the internet facilitates a gambling addiction. Second, new technologies give rise to unique forms of addiction, e.g., addictions to social media or video games (89-90). But, thirdly, Schalow is engaged in a larger claim, namely the Heideggerian claim that technology essentially amounts to an “enframing” of the world, characteristic of our culture, i.e., in which everything (including humanity) becomes standing reserve. This “enframing,” in turn, is bound up with addiction in a number of ways. First, it fosters a culture of excess and immediate gratification which promote addiction. Second, this technological culture infuses the life-world of the addict with boredom and stress, and thereby motivates release via addictive substances or processes (section 5.2). Finally, there seems to be a deeper sense in which technology mirrors addiction: just as in addiction one seeks control over one’s life and moods through the use of a substance or process, but thereby in fact gives control of one’s life over to the substance or process, similarly technology offers the promise of control, the “enframing” of resources, only at the price of losing control of human life to this enframing (110). It is, I think, especially in this sense that Schalow understands his central claim that addiction should take on the broad sense of a “historical and cultural transformation of our way-to-be” (4).
In the final chapters of his work, Schalow turns to an existential analysis of methods of treatment. Since Schalow considers the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program to be the “enduring spiritual plan of our today” (111), Chapter 6 investigates the historical backdrop for the development of this program, explaining connections between AA founder Bill Wilson and the important figures and movements of his time, including Carl Jung, Rudolf Bultmann, and the Oxford movement. In chapters 7 & 8, Schalow argues that existing approaches to treatment are overly dependent on a mind-body dualism – i.e., they focus on either spiritual practices (e.g., AA or talk therapy) or purely physiological treatments – and so leave an important gap in treatment that would be targeted at the addict’s life-situation. Further, the hermeneutic-phenomenological method, insofar as it has long subverted the dualism of mind and body, can prove an important corrective here, by suggesting contours of treatment that would fill this gap. While these contours are multifaceted – e.g., involving the addict adopting new life-contexts (147) – Schalow focuses on transcendence, or responsibility, claiming that addiction cannot be treated without some “resoluteness” (in Heidegger’s sense) on the part of the addict. According to Schalow, “resoluteness” is the appropriate category by which to understand the addict’s choice of recovery, because the decision to quit a habit is not merely a choice, but really a choosing to choose. One does not overcome addiction through a single choice, but rather through choosing, day by day, sobriety, in a manner that is thus the opposite of the culture of immediate gratification fostered by technology. Addiction can only be treated with a commitment, on the part of the addict, and thus insofar as the addict takes responsibility for her or himself.
These analyses accomplish a number of important tasks. Schalow’s greatest accomplishment is to translate Heidegger’s phenomenological concepts into the context of addiction, and show that these concepts can be productively employed in this context. Second, Schalow draws together and develops Heidegger’s scattered thoughts about addiction into a sustained account, offering a cohesive existential analysis of the phenomenon. Third, Schalow makes a number of interesting claims about the cultural backdrop for the prevalence of addiction in today’s society, in particular, raising important questions about the role technology may be playing in this phenomenon. Fourth, in his final chapters, Schalow suggests the principles of an existential approach to recovery, an approach which may indeed offer some novel principles for treatment. Fifth, Schalow makes and supports the provocative claim that addiction is in some sense the norm for our society, and cannot be considered merely pathological. Finally, especially in Chapter 6, Schalow draws connections between a number of figures important in the early 20th century and demonstrates their relevance to the formation of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program.
Along with these significant accomplishments, there are some problems with Schalow’s account. In the following, I’ll outline four kinds of concerns about Schalow’s book: those dealing with his interpretation of Heidegger, with the connection he draws between technology and addiction, with his reliance on the AA program, and with his principles of treatment.
First, there are some issues with Schalow’s interpretation of Heidegger, three of which are especially significant. First, Schalow uses Heidegger’s analysis of technology to shed light on the role technology might play in the present addiction crisis. But it seems to me that Schalow often blurs the distinction, important to Heidegger, between technology and the essence of technology (e.g., Heidegger’s claim that “The essence of technology is by no means anything technological” ). But Schalow seems to move readily between the claim that specific technologies facilitate addiction and the claim that enframing, or the essence of technology, permeates the present addiction crisis, leaving it unclear to what extent his argument is Heideggerian. Second, and relatedly, it seems to me that Schalow risks misunderstanding the “danger” posed by the essence of technology according to Heidegger. Heidegger writes that “Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth. The destining that sends into ordering is consequently the extreme danger. What is dangerous is not technology. … The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing is the danger” (333). The danger is not that of “the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology,” but that enframing blocks a more primordial engagement with Being. But Schalow is at the very least ambiguous in his understanding of the danger when he writes that “Heidegger argued that technology wields a double-edged sword, namely, that the greater opportunities afforded to human beings, including leisure-time, simultaneously brings its specific drawbacks and even risks. In his words, for every mode of ‘unconcealing’ what is, i.e., the opportunities created by new innovations, there are also equally ominous modes of ‘concealing,’ i.e., unanticipated and destructive consequences” (96). Third, if Schalow is right to think that addiction is a symptom of the essence of technology, then it is unclear that an individual’s resoluteness could free her or him of addiction. Heidegger writes that “Human activity can never directly counter this danger. Human achievement alone can never banish it. But human reflection can ponder the fact that all saving power must be of a higher essence than what is endangered, though at the same time kindred to it” (339). Schalow presupposes that terms like “resoluteness” (as understood in the context of Heidegger’s early work in Being and Time) can offer a resolution to a problem posed at least in part by technology (as understood in the context of Heidegger’s later work), a presupposition which is at least contentious. And if no human activity or achievement can directly counter the danger, then it is unclear to me how efficacious reflection on the kinship of the endangered and the saving power would be for the addict.
Second, the connection between technology and addiction could be better established. For example, at times Schalow claims that certain technologies or technological processes are addictive. But it would be helpful to cite some empirical research in this regard, especially given that the medical community has not yet concluded that there are such addictions (though some research does support this conclusion, e.g., Leeman and Potenza ). Here too it would be helpful if Schalow were clearer about the kind of connection he envisages between technology and addiction, whether in terms of technologies influencing addiction or technological thinking being in some sense essentially addictive.
Third, Schalow focuses much of his thinking about treatment around the AA twelve-step program, but does little to argue for the validity of this program. Instead, Schalow seems to assume that the AA program offers a valid point of departure for analysis, justifying it by appealing to it as the “enduring spiritual plan of our today” (111) or as the first addiction treatment program (ix). But the efficacy of the twelve-step program is controversial (see, e.g., Dodes  or Humphreys et. al. ). Granted, Schalow sets out to offer a philosophical and existential approach, rather than an empirical or medical approach, but a phenomenological approach must exercise care in its choice of a point of departure for analysis. Some other finer points raise similar concerns, e.g., Schalow’s referral to “neurasthenia” (161), a condition no longer recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In general, Schalow’s analysis would have benefitted from greater fluency with psychological and medical results.
Fourth, I have some concerns about Schalow’s principles for treatment. Foremost of these is that it is hard to see how Schalow’s prescription of “resoluteness” wouldn’t entail a return to the moralistic myth that the addict is merely lazy. Schalow recognizes this possibility, and certainly aims to avert it, for example, writing that he defines “responsibility” in a Heideggerrian manner (in terms of “answerability”) rather than in the traditional sense of a volitional act or exercise of the will (151). Nevertheless, the ensuing discussion of responsibility (especially Schalow’s use of Kant) makes it hard to see how he is not resorting to a more traditional sense of responsibility. Schalow is very likely correct that resoluteness is a necessary condition for recovery, but it is unclear how far it is supposed to get the addict. Further, if Schalow’s aim is to bridge the gap between treatments aimed at the mind and treatments aimed at the body (considered in biological terms), then “resoluteness” or “choosing to choose” might not be the best resource: a phenomenological analysis of human existence aimed at a level beneath deliberate choice might provide more novel approaches to treatment. Indeed, some of Schalow’s most interesting insights about treatment are found in discussions not directly oriented toward resoluteness, e.g., in his suggestion that for the addict to reorient her priorities she must begin to “inhabit a new space” of relations with others (146).
Schalow’s Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction succeeds in developing a phenomenological framework for thinking about addiction, and raises interesting questions about the role of technology and transcendence in addiction. Anyone led by Schalow’s subtitle to look in this book for a close treatment of the role of embodiment in addiction might be left wanting more, for Schalow treats this theme more sparingly than the others. One wonders if Husserl or Merleau-Ponty might have proven better resources in this regard for Schalow than Heidegger, and indeed, some of the most acute passages related to embodiment come from Schalow’s brief discussion of habituality and Merleau-Ponty (40-1). Nevertheless, Schalow succeeds in this work in knitting together a host of phenomenological themes around the topic of addiction, and perhaps it would be unfair to ask him to incorporate yet another with equal care. Its successes make this book a considerable step in the phenomenological and existential analysis of addiction, and no doubt it will prove an important study for anyone interested in this topic.
Dodes, Lance and Zachary Dodes. 2014. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 2008. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell. 307-352. New York: HarperCollins.
Humphreys, Keith, Janet C. Blodgett, and Todd H. Wagner. 2014. “Estimating the Efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous without Self-Selection Bias: An Instrumental Variables Re-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 38 (11): 2688-2694.
Leeman, RF and MN Potenza. 2013. “A Targeted Review of the Neurobiology and Genetics of Behavioral Addictions: An Emerging Area of Research.” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 58 (5): 260-73.
A recent wave of Heidegger scholarship has been developing with the ongoing publication and translation of the Black Notebooks. The notebooks created an immediate controversy, so much so that Heidegger’s thought was a subject of discussion in popular Anglophone media even before the appearance of the English publication of the first volume. Planned to be published as the concluding volumes of Heidegger’s Collected Works, the notebooks are found particularly interesting in relation to their antisemitic content. The prevalent issue for many commentators and critics revolves around whether Heidegger’s apparent antisemitism is a personal engagement which would keep his philosophy sterile or whether there is an inherent antisemitism at the core of his thought, indispensable to the very notion of the truth of being. Nancy’s The Banality of Heidegger departs from this context and overreaches that basic either/or predicament by undertaking a rather post-Heideggerian reading of the notebooks. Holding on to what he thinks to be the essential resource of the Heideggerian enterprise of “reduction of naive ontology” (5), Nancy puts into question what remained unthought by Heidegger and reveals the play of deconstructive and antisemitic motifs within his thought.
The Banality of Heidegger consists of 12 numbered chapters, a coda and a supplementary chapter on a passage from Anmerkungen I-V, the fourth volume of the Black Notebooks, which was published after Nancy’s book. The merits of the Heidegger-Levinas-Derrida lineage are visible throughout the book with carefully situated ambivalences and rigorously structured interpretations at the limits of the possibility of a discourse. Nancy focuses primarily on the notebooks and operates within their discourse by assuming an earlier acquaintance with Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The first two chapters introduce the framework and lay out a few preliminary remarks.
The book does not have the author’s preface or introduction; thus, the first chapter bears the responsibility to justify the title, “the banality of Heidegger.” Nancy repeatedly notes that the fact that antisemitism is “banal” is not to be taken as something that would result in a relative indifference to the horrific moments in empirical history. It means, rather, that Heidegger’s corpus inherited some values of the dominant antisemitic discourse of its time. In fact, Heidegger’s identification of Jewishness with calculative reasoning, manipulation, historylessness, internationalism, and the will to domination is drawn from the “most banal, vulgar, trivial, and nasty discourse . . . propped up for some thirty years by the miserable publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (23).
Yet Nancy seeks the philosophical significance of what Heidegger has to say with this notorious jargon, which will go beyond the crude fact of its notoriety. To this end, before any close reading, Nancy eliminates a certain untenable—yet still widespread—interpretation in which Heidegger’s antisemitism is identified as or at least associated with a form of racism. Notwithstanding, Heidegger explicitly renounces the racial principle in the notebooks, and also in Contributions to Philosophy, because it “proceeds from a biological, naturalist, and therefore ‘metaphysical’ conception” (4). This is not to say that Heidegger did not argue about the Jews as the embodiment of a greedy vulgarization of the world (24), but to say that “Jews” in that context does not signify a racial determination. What does it signify, then? This is a question Nancy resolves by first outlining a few cardinal concepts from the broader context of the Heideggerian thought in the second chapter.
The first of those concepts is “the reduction of naive ontology” (5), a term Nancy uses with reference to Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena and equates with both Heideggerian Destruktion and Derridean deconstruction (6), which here designates the general critical stance of Heidegger and of the thinkers following the pathway opened by him—including Nancy—on traditional Western metaphysics from Ancient Greece to Hegel and beyond. Secondly, the reduction of naive ontology requires an essentially novel way of grasping metaphysics, a “second beginning” of metaphysics (6). This new beginning or the “other beginning” [Anfang] would be driven by the thoughtful scrutiny and radical questioning directed at the conceptualization of the human essence as something shared equally by the entire homogeneous bulk of humankind irrespective of how Dasein constitutively understands itself with regard to its being. Such a conception of human essence, which lies at the heart of the Western metaphysics and in particular of the Enlightenment, amounts to the uprooting of Dasein from its ecstatico-horizontal temporality (Being and Time, H. 388; pagination of the later German editions). Thirdly, the constitutive understanding of being which belongs to a “people” [Gemeinschaft], whose shared understanding implicates a shared history [Geschichte] as their shared ground. As Nancy summarizes Heidegger’s point concisely, “a people—which is not a race—can be considered as a . . . force of historial [geschichtlich] beginning” (7-8). The reciprocity among a people, history, and being has thus been established.
It has already been said that a people is not a race but a historial determination, and Nancy touches upon the purport and significance of a particular people at the beginning of the third chapter, the Jewish people, in the context of the Black Notebooks. The opening passage has this remarkable quote from Heidegger: “The question concerning the role of world Jewry is not a racial question but the metaphysical question that bears on the type of human modality which, being absolutely unbound, can undertake as a historial ‘task’ the uprooting of all beings from being” (10). Such is called “historial anti-Semitism” by Peter Trawny. Accordingly, being Jew is being in a certain human modality, which does not stipulate consanguinity or any other biological or natural circumstance. From all these, an affinity between the Jews and the “they” [das Man] as evinced in Being and Time is visible (H. 129). To be sure, Heidegger presumes that he has the right to use the word “Jews” to designate a people who are eo ipso dispersed into the “they,” that is, entrapped in their everyday, inauthentic existence in which they see the world through a scientific-historiological objectification. Yet it would be untenable to claim that “they” is just a euphemism for “Jews,” because, as the above quote shows, for Heidegger, the Jews are not only characterized by being “absolutely unbound” and thus “groundless” but also specified as those whose historial task is “the uprooting of every being” by way of calculative reasoning and machination (11), which have only been aggravated since the “first beginning” of Western metaphysics in Ancient Greek thought. In other words, Heidegger takes Jewishness to be more than an inauthentic human modality; it also indicates the task with whose accomplishment such an inauthenticity would dominate the world.
In the fourth chapter, this line of thought is furthered and one of the major questions of The Banality of Heidegger, namely, the question of how Heidegger locates the Jews with respect to the history [Geschichte] of being, or, in other words, to the destiny [Geschick] of the West, is introduced. Nancy here draws a striking parallel between the Marxist narrative and Heidegger’s account of the Jews. To begin with, Marx’s interpretation of the homogenization of labor in the form of a “general equivalent” as alienation from the proper value of the human productivity calls for a specific understanding of, and a political-spiritual stance against, a certain type of nondifferentiation (cf. Capital, 46-55). It is under the light of this portrayal that Nancy reads the Jews’ claiming for themselves the principle of “‘domination of life by machination’ . . . in the direction of a complete ‘deracialization’ (Entrassung) of a humanity reduced to the undifferentiated equality of all, and in general of all beings” (15). In a mixed discourse of Marx and Heidegger, then, the Jews would be the commodity fetishists par excellence. Moreover, a different as yet even more striking parallelism suggests that both the Jews of the Black Notebooks and the proletariat suggests “a certain eschatological and figural regime of thought: an end is approaching—an end, and therefore a beginning—and this advent requires a figure, the identification of the annihilating force” (15). This time, the Jews are the proletariat par excellence as the bearers of the task of annulling the multiplicity of peoples’ being. Therefore, with their incapability of acknowledging Dasein’s essential belongingness to a people, the Jews in the discourse of the Black Notebooks constitute the historial force which drives the West to its devastating self-alienation [Selbst-entfremdung].
In the following few chapters, Nancy expands the scope of his investigation into the designation of the Jews in the context of Geschick/Geschichte. It has been said that the Jews, with regard to their historial determination, embody the decline of the West, and Nancy shows that the historico-destinal possibility of the devastation of Western civilization is put to be the ultimate condition of its salvation, viz., of the second beginning. Indeed, Heidegger had already maintained in “Overcoming Metaphysics” that overcoming metaphysics necessitates a stage of decline, and the notebooks confirm that the Heideggerian depiction of the West resembles a phoenix; the “other beginning” is possible only after the destruction of the predecessor (19). This does not mean, nonetheless, that the historial force that has been characterized by Jewishness is to achieve complete annihilation of the West or its turning into nothingness, but means that the Western-destinal schema must harbor the epitome of “a failure to identify itself, to recognize itself, and to accept itself” (20) and thus must employ the Jewishness as a part of its ownmost destining (25).
Once the task of “destruction of the spirit of beginning” is set to belong to the West itself, the task becomes at once self-affirmation and self-destruction. By destroying itself, the West fulfills “a necessity of its destining, and it requires the destruction of its destructiveness, so as to liberate another beginning” (25). Thus, there are multiple tasks and intertwined historialities, which constitute the unique history of being. Nancy examines these interweaving historialities. This does not only put forward a framework to read Heidegger’s historial understanding of the people of the West, but it also provides Nancy with a textual margin within which a manoeuvre of radicalization would render Heidegger’s narrative to be the subject of its own questioning. While doing so, Nancy proceeds from a play of equivocalities to a relatively clear interpretation of how Heidegger positions the Jews with respect to the history of being. There are four particularly important nodes that set the ground for a deconstructive discourse within the margins of the Black Notebooks.
The first of those nodes is the “first beginning,” i.e., the Ancient Greek thinking. “The West bears within itself a fatality [Verhängnis]” (19), which is inscribed by the destining of being in the “first beginning” (30). That is to say, the self-detestation of the West was not alien to Ancient Greek thought, as if imposed by the Jews as an external force, but to the contrary was inaugurated by it. “[The] erosion began with Plato . . . [who] is not Jewish” (33), and it is not by accident but as a necessity that the initial unveiling (ἀ-λήθεια) stipulates the subsequent decline. Nancy states that investigating this necessity falls outside the scope of the book, except just once he gives a hint: “Thus have we learnt that the unveiling is always initial, but also that it was necessary that the veiling come along to show this to us” (53-4). Then, given that “Jewishness” is inscribed within Ancient Greek thought, one questions Heidegger’s choice of the “Jews” as the leading agent of modern devastation. The answer will be given in the second nodal point of the discourse, which is Christianity.
Heidegger’s account of Christianity displays a double character. On the one hand, he reduces Christendom to the Jews and sees the former as an extension or as the twin of the latter. It is not so seldom that Heidegger arrives at Christianity as the roots of an idea by way of a rigorous and elaborate investigation, then jumps to Judaism by simply stating that Christianity is issued from Judaism (cf. 69). Bringing Christianity and Judaism together results in nothing but the calcification of the status of the Jews as the principal agent of the devastation of the West in Heidegger’s discourse, because Christianity in this way is seen as the Roman appropriation of the Jewish groundlessness and nothing more. By insistently avoiding any interest in questioning this “self-evident” caricature and by submitting to a violent and hateful depiction of the Jews, Heidegger joins the banality and vulgarity of the antisemitism of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion without a question, which is also why he feels no discomfort at labeling the entire tradition of the forgetting of being as “Jewish.” On the other hand, Heidegger’s narrative is shown by Nancy to exhibit an affinity with Christianity insofar as Christianity itself is antisemitic. From this perspective, Christendom is the first to renounce the groundlessness in Judaism by claiming for itself an identity which is detached from the Jews. However that identity is rooted in the Jewish convictions, its historial legacy fosters antisemitism, which Heidegger eagerly adopted (34-5). On the whole, Christianity as a historico-destinal human modality stands in contradistinction to itself, and thus becomes the true heir of the West’s self-rejection.
Thirdly, there is Jewishness, whose portrayal by Heidegger is already the main thematic of The Banality of Heidegger. To sum up, there are three aspects to Jewishness in Heidegger’s understanding. First, the Jews are inherently bound with technics and machination, and thereby epitomize the primary historial force that leads to the devastation of the West. In this respect, the Jews are thoroughly repudiated by the destining of being. However, for this exact reason, secondly, they appear as an indispensable part of the history of the West and hence of its second beginning. In this respect, the Jews are included as a cardinal part of the Western destiny. And thirdly, by being a people whose historial task is the dissolution of all peoples into a non-differentiated array of calculable atoms, that is, by being self-destructors per se, they represent the grounding possibility of the Western beginning in general. As Nancy confirms, “the Jew is the oldest figure of a self-destruction of the West” (30), and in this respect, the Jews’ historico-destinal standing is elevated, although in the form of a “detestable exception . . . of a foreign intrusion” (28). Thus, repudiation, inclusion and elevation frame the constitutive aporia of Jewishness.
Finally, Nazism. In the notebooks, Heidegger states that “[o]nly someone who is German can in an originarily new way poetize being and say being—he alone will conquer anew the essence of θεωρία and finally create logic” (Ponderings II-VI, 21). Here and in many other places, for example, in Being and Truth and in “Europe and German Philosophy”, the Germans appear as the “spiritual nucleus” of the West. Accordingly, the Germans are the rightful bearers of the task to undertake the second beginning. Notwithstanding, by the very fact that they are the nucleus of the West, they carry within themselves the self-annihilating force, which led to the self-betrayal of Germans with the thoughtlessness of the Nazi regime (8, 71), so much so that through the end of 1941 Heidegger even considered the possibility of a non-German “new beginning” that might arise out of Russian authenticity as opposed to communism (7-8). It is important here to clarify that for Heidegger, the horror of Nazism is not related to a moral, political, or sociological account of the extermination camps but has always been “the extreme destinal point of technics” and machination (40). For this matter, the Nazi regime, for Heidegger, indulged in the ultimate German hypocrisy, as it were, by taking as its principle the domination of the masses despite the Greek legacy of authentic thought. It is ontically the closest to the possibility of the second beginning, that is, by being German, yet ontologically maybe the farthest.
Nancy’s investigation into the historial-political discourse of the Heidegger of the Black Notebooks does not employ the schematic description outlined here. The four textual nodes of tension, namely, the first beginning, Christianity, Jewishness, and Nazism, are rather to be taken as the outcome of an effort to structurize the unsystematic unfolding of The Banality of Heidegger. Furthermore, they are neither the consecutive stages in a continual history nor the moments of a dialectic movement. They rather designate a set of non-sequential yet in a way interrelated encounters of the peoples with the historial possibility they open.
World War II is seen from this perspective as the Jews’ “simultaneous combat against its counterpart (the Nazi racial principal) and against itself [Bolshevism]” (50). Thus, Nazi thoughtlessness is seen to be the counterpart of the Jewish groundlessness. While Jewishness dictates metacultural neutrality, Nazism dictates its extreme opposite: the racial principle. “This struggle—at once Jewish/Nazi and Bolshevik/American—determines ‘the high point of self-annihilation [Selbstvernichtung] in history’” (69). Yet “at the height of devastation ‘there continues to shine [and is therefore undestroyed] the light of a history capable of decision’” (21; Nancy’s insertion). In other words, neither the Nazi betrayal nor the overarching ravage of the war, which, in the eyes of Heidegger, is nothing but the domination of the technical calculating machination, then, does eliminate the possibility of the second beginning. Accordingly, there remains an untouched authenticity within the West, not in the sense of a self-subsistent spirit but as a necessity of the overflowing of being, which ultimately grounds the possibility of all forgetting and concealment, and thus of all machination and also the war itself (cf. 30). Apparently, Heidegger locates his own discourse within this authentic Germanness, whose victory over the historyless can only arrive through the self-destruction of the agent of the Western destruction. Depending on this, Nancy concludes that “Heidegger was not only anti-Semitic: he attempted to think to its final extremity a deep historico-destinal necessity of anti-Semitism” (51-2).
The historial, non-racial antisemitism of Heidegger stems from the banality of Heidegger, which puts the Heideggerian discourse on the Jews in contradistinction to itself, and this is where Nancy extends his reading towards questioning the unthought of Heidegger. The demonstration is spread throughout the book, but is condensed in the final chapters. One facet of the banality of Heidegger has already been mentioned, in that, Heidegger’s antisemitism “carts around the vulgarity spread by an incessant discourse crystallized as hateful, racist denunciation” (71). In other words, Heidegger adopts the antisemitic vocabulary of his time, a time which is shaped by the mass propaganda of the antisemitic discourse. If one prefers the rhetoric of Being and Time, the vocabulary that Heidegger so blatantly adopts is the “public” [Öffentlich] vocabulary of the “they” (cf. H. 126-7). Therefore, to the extent that Heidegger remains reluctant to question what is ordinarily self-evident, i.e., a deep-rooted antisemitism, his narrative rivets the “long error and/or wandering of the West” (30). And yet if one prefers rewording this finding in the rhetoric of the Black Notebooks, it would be Heidegger’s own “thoughtlessness” to assume the antisemitism of the tradition.
There is another facet of Heidegger’s banality, and that is more deeply entangled with the core of the Heideggerian enterprise. Nancy quotes Elisabeth Rigal to summarize the issue: “Heidegger’s error is to have believed in a unique destining” (42). To explain, despite its difference from the traditional understanding of history as the succession of happenings [Historie], Heidegger’s understanding of history as destining of being inherits the idea of “origin” from the tradition. Thus, having a proper, authentic, delineable and determinable origin, viz., Ancient Greek thought, which is also free from the “darkening of the world” (69), the entire history is perceived with reference to that origin and to everything inscribed within it, that is, decline, second beginning, etc. Hence, the multiplicity of peoples is—not melted into or sublated by but—conglomerated into one single heterogeneous play of forces revolving around the first beginning towards the second beginning upon the unique destining of being (41-2). Having related the concept “origin” to the “uniqueness of destining,” Nancy claims that this obsession with the origin is the “metaphysical” obsession par excellence, which led Heidegger into his own way of self-hatred (47), which is in general the peculiarity of Western metaphysics. Therefore, what is obstructed [verstellt] in the discourse of Heidegger is the possibility of a wholly other destining, which would entail the acknowledgement of, if not respect for, the Jews as a people towards an other destiny than what Heidegger thinks to be the singular one.
However, these do not mean that the Destruktion of ontology, as an attempt to destabilize that which is ordinarily self-evident, has to operate within a self-annihilating banality. As for the first facet of the banality of Heidegger, Nancy points out that the Heideggerian impetus has resulted in the flourishing of many philosophical pathways, such as that of Levinas, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, which did not “pick up anything remotely resembling anti-Semitism from the always murmuring gutters of banality” (47). As for the second facet, Nancy considers Heidegger’s thought not as a static doctrine but as a way of questioning which is open to transformation. Thus, he still has the hope that the currently unpublished volumes of the Black Notebooks may harbor a transformation in Heidegger’s understanding of “beginning” (38). Furthermore, Nancy also thinks that Heidegger’s thought already implies the Destruktion of the “rage for the initial or for the archi-” even though that rage is one of the main tenets that shape how Heidegger considers historiality; accordingly, it would still be “thinking” [Denken] even if the uniqueness of destining is questioned (43).
On the whole, by way of deconstructive plays with the intertwined textual tensions in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, Nancy’s reading demonstrates that Heidegger’s unthought partakes in the antisemitism which has been a constitutive element of the discourse of Western thought since the early days of Christianity. Identification of the Jewish people with the “thoughtless will to domination” is the persistent characterization on which the entire antagonism is built in the Black Notebooks. Nevertheless, it must also be noted that Heidegger’s antisemitism does not stem from the racial principle of Nazism; it rather takes its departure from the concept of the destining of being, according to which, as Nancy’s reading shows, Nazism is the German counterpart of “Jewishness,” both serving to the spiritual decline of the West. While Nancy examines the antisemitic character of the Black Notebooks, he in no way disregards the fact that Heidegger is one of the leading figures—and indeed he states Heidegger’s “operation was the most frontal” (12)—of contemporary thought. All in all, Nancy does not only think that the Destruktion of ontology can operate without the antisemitic elements in Heidegger’s thought, but also demonstrates that the Heideggerian legacy paves the way for the deconstruction of those very elements.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Harper & Row, 1962.
———. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Trans. Richard Rojcewicz. Indiana UP, 2016.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Vol. 1. Trans. Samuel Moore. Wordsworth, 2013.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Banality of Heidegger. Trans. Jeff Fort. Fordham UP, 2017.
 All page references are to The Banality of Heidegger unless stated otherwise.
Any attempt to practically apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy within the domain of normative or applied ethics is bound to be controversial. In considering recent attempts to apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy to the fields of nursing and psychology, for instance, Diane Perpich has argued that it is a mistake to think that Levinas’s philosophy can be read as a ‘constructive ethics that offers ethical norms that can be put to work in care-giving professions’ (Perpich 2012: 128): Levinas’s ethics, Perpich continues, ‘is not a defence of our inherently ethical nature nor a guarantee of our ethical responsibility’ (Perpich 2012: 128), rather what one finds in Levinas’s philosophy, above all, is a painstaking attempt to excavate the ‘constitutive uncertainty and fragility of ethical life’ (Perpich 2012: 128). That is, while the resonant – if often baroque – terminology employed by Levinas may seem eminently relatable to certain clinical settings, the metaphysical complexities and phenomenological ambiguities lying behind this terminology precludes any straightforward practical application. On first blush, then, the conception of Ronald C. Arnett’s Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics, which sets out to find ‘practical application of Levinas’s work…in explicating communication ethics’ (Arnett 2017: 4), is apt to invite considerable suspicion from Levinasians.
Yet, there are two reasons why such suspicion may be misplaced. Firstly, while some construals of communication ethics may aim at providing a constructive ethics composed of ethical norms for communication, construed more broadly communication ethics concerns the study of ‘communication phenomena from the standpoint of ethics and morality’ (Cheney et al. 2011: 1). And it is evident even from a cursory reading of Levinas’s key works, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being (1974), that Levinas himself was centrally concerned with the ethical significance of language and interpersonal communication. So the practical application of Levinas’s work in explicating communication ethics initially looks to be a more natural fit than those attempts to apply Levinas’s ethics to other practical domains isolated for criticism by Perpich. Secondly, the central insight Arnett that hopes to import from Levinas to the field of communication ethics is that ‘our responsibility to and for the Other has no demarcation or conclusion’ (Arnett 2017: 1). That is to say, for Arnett, ‘communication ethics from a Levinasian perspective admits the challenge, ambiguity, and necessity of learning in the performative enactment of responsibility’ (Arnett 2017: 2). Thus, what Arnett’s study promises to provide is an attempt to apply Levinasian insights concerning the constitutive uncertainty and fragility of ethical life to the domain of communication ethics. And, in this respect, Arnett’s study initially looks to be consonant with Perpich’s claim that ‘if practical professions are to make anything practical of Levinas’s thought, it is this fragility and vulnerability that must arguably become central to their self-understanding and to their appropriation of texts like Totality and Infinity’ (Perpich 2012: 129).
Importantly, then, the conception of Arnett’s study looks to be philosophically fruitful, in that it proposes a plausible application of Levinas’s ethics to a relevant practical domain, and exegetically sensitive, in that it resists the temptation to derive a system of norms from Levinas’s ethics and instead focuses on the uncertainty and fragility of ethical life emphasised by Levinas. However, in terms of its execution, Arnett faces some not inconsiderable difficulties: Centrally, we might wonder what, if anything, Levinasian insights concerning the fragility and uncertainty of ethical life can offer in terms of practical guidance for communication? On the one hand, to attempt to derive any practical guidance from such Levinasian insights risks descending into vague, pious exhortation. Yet, on the other hand, to refrain from proposing any direct practical applications of Levinas’s ethics within the domain of communication risks exposing the limited utility of a Levinasian perspective for explicating communication ethics, and, thus, the limited interest of Arnett’s study as a whole. Does Arnett manage to avoid these two risks in the execution of his study?
The book begins with a foreword by Algis Mickunas comprised of ‘a brief introduction to the main trends in Russian literature and aspects of phenomenology, relevant to understanding Levinas’s encounter with “the other”’ (Arnett 2017: vii). Presumably, the aim of the foreword, then, is to provide orientation for readers new to Levinas to his complex and involved path of thinking. As such, however, while not without interest, Mickunas’s strategy is curious and provocative. The majority of the discussion is devoted to developing the provocative claim that Russian literature, which Levinas often emphasised as being a formative influence on his thinking, occupies a ‘point of crisis’ between two worlds – the industrial, enlightened West and the spiritualized and provincial East. Mickunas claims that it is from this point of crisis that a vantage point opens up within Russian literature whereby the comparative worth of these respective life-worlds is adjudicated by a third factor – namely, intrinsic human worth. Thus, Mickunas appears to be suggesting that Levinas’s philosophical focus on the pre-cultural ethical significance of the Other germinated in his readings of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. Both aspects of Mickunas’s argument – concerning the spiritual impetus of Russian literature and its effect on Levinas’s thinking – are contestable. But for the purposes of this review, the important point is whether this discussion provides a helpful and illuminating way in to Levinas’s thought. And it seems to me that it does not. This worry is only compounded by Mickunas’s comparatively brief and rather curious discussion of the ‘phenomenological issues’ at stake in Levinas’s thinking, which constitutes the second part of the foreword. Rather than providing a context for Levinas’s thinking within the phenomenological tradition, perhaps by explaining the ways in which Levinas critically appropriates elements of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s respective philosophies or the ways in which Levinas tests the limits of phenomenology by drawing on religiously loaded terminology, Mickunas engages in rather curious discussion of ‘corporeity,’ mythology and kerygma. Again, it seems to me that if the purpose of this foreword is to provide the reader with some orientation and context for Levinas’s thinking then it is not particularly helpful.
The main body of the text is composed of ten chapters which tend to repeat a similar structure: Beginning with a ‘case study’ relevant to the domain of communication ethics, Arnett then goes on to draw on different aspects of Levinas’s ethical thought in order to explicate the communication phenomena at stake in the case study before concluding each chapter by proposing a set of Levinas-inspired theses to be adopted by communication theorists. These chapters are framed in the introduction by two guiding principles concerning (1) Arnett’s basic conception of communication ethics and (2) his interpretive approach to Levinas. Concerning the former, Arnett writes that ‘this work understands communication ethics [as] an obligation to discover multiple means of understanding and ratifying communication ethics action in the depths of attentiveness to uniqueness and particularity’ (Arnett 2017: 5-6). Plausibly, this definition is already imbued with certain Levinasian emphases, but the point is nonetheless clear: Communications ethics, for Arnett, aims to make explicit the ethical significance of communication through careful phenomenological analyses of the interpersonal context of communication. As for Arnett’s approach to Levinas, he writes that ‘Levinas’s work has practical application when met as an awakening guide about responsibility that refuses to shelter “me” from accountability in my actions to and for the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 5). Here, the point seems to be that all interpersonal communication has ethical significance which can be specified in terms of a ‘rhetoric of demands’ (Arnett 2017: 9) made on the self by the Other. And Levinas’s ethical philosophy will be used in this text as a resource to give shape and definition – in the form of ‘awakening’ – to the nature of this rhetoric of demands putatively intrinsic in interpersonal communication. The aim of the following chapters, then, will be to bring Levinas’s ethical philosophy to bare on certain prototypical instances of communication in order to explicate their ethical significance.
Before moving on to the arguments, I want to register two ambiguities present in Arnett’s introduction. The first concerns to whom the arguments of the text are addressed: Is the ethical awakening putatively provided by Levinas’s philosophy an awakening for communications theorists or for us qua communicators? This question may sound facetious, but it is compounded by further ambiguities concerning Arnett’s heavy use of the term ‘rhetoric’ in his introduction. While Arnett admits that in Totality and Infinity, Levinas ‘offers a contentious response to rhetoric’ (Arnett 2017: 1), Arnett nonetheless asserts that, from a Levinasian perspective, ‘one must respond to the rhetorical demands of the face of the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 2). But, one wonders, isn’t this move exegetically illegitimate? In Totality and Infinity, Levinas states that ‘Our pedagogical or psychological discourse is rhetoric, taking the position of him who approaches his neighbour with ruse…It approaches the other not to face him, but obliquely…[I]t is pre-eminently violence, that is, injustice – not violence exercised on an inertia (which would not be a violence), but on a freedom…’ (Levinas 2012: 70). Given Levinas’s associations of rhetoric with a violence which, rather than facing the other tries to manipulate her and rob her of her freedom, Arnett’s claim – inscribed in the title of his book – that Levinas advocates for a rhetorical demand at the centre of interpersonal communication looks interpretively problematic. However, read in a different way, it might be the case that Arnett’s claim here is a subtler, reflexive one: Namely, that communication ethics as a practically-oriented discipline is a form of ‘pedagogy’ or ‘psychological discourse’ which, for that reason, must, in Levinas’s eyes, take the form of rhetoric. As such, the practical import of Levinas’s ethics to communication ethics is to impress on communications ethicists the limitations of their practice and to encourage greater restraint and sensitivity when it comes to proscribing codes of conduct for communication. In either case, the major claim of Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand is not made ideally clear in Arnett’s introduction.
The first chapter compares Levinas to the work of George Herbert Mead and Jeffrey Murray in developing the claim that ‘the human being is defined by ethics, not as first philosophy, but via a communicative first gesture of responsibility toward and with another’ (Arnett 2017: 38) in which ‘communication ethics is a primordial gesture that ignites a series of ethical events performed within a difficult freedom, a world without assurance or clarity of formulas that demands urgency of response from no one by me’ (Arnett 2017: 40). In other words, the work of the first chapter is devoted to emphasising (1) the primitive ethical significance of symbolic gestural interaction for communication and (2) the fragility and uncertainty intrinsic to such primordial forms of interaction. What is surprising about this claim is that Arnett seems to immediately discard Levinas’s central claim that ‘ethics is first philosophy’ in favour of Mead’s behaviourist theory of symbolic interactionism. It is left unclear what motivates this unexpected move and, indeed, whether Mead’s sociological method is at all compatible with the parts of Levinas’s phenomenology that Arnett seeks to appropriate.
In chapter 2, Arnett provides as his case study a rich and interesting discussion of Levinas’s life, aimed at describing how Levinas’s life influenced his ethical thinking. It is comprised of a discussion of Salomon Malka’s biography of Levinas, Phillipe Nemo’s interviews with Levinas, published as Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo, and Levinas’s autobiographical fragment, ‘Signature,’ published in Difficult Freedom. The chapter, ‘working under the metaphors of footprints and echoes, reminds us of the importance of concrete experiences in conjunction with ideas of weight and height that infuse time before time with ethical import’ (Arnett 2017: 65). While it is not ideally clear what Arnett means by this, the thrust of the claim appears to turn on Levinas’s distinction between the Saying and the Said. As Michael Morgan aptly describes the distinction, the Said refers to the construction of languages, ‘the form and content of linguistic systems of systems of symbols’ (Morgan 2011: 135), that enable interpersonal interaction, while the Saying is the ‘ethical matrix in which language as communication takes place;’ it describes the ‘social, concrete context for language’ which has at its core ‘the call of the other person to the self to accept and acknowledge it’ (Morgan 2011: 135). And, without wanting to be reductive, Arnett’s claim in this chapter could perhaps be summarized as arguing for the need to take account of both the Saying and the Said in the practice of communication ethics.
The third chapter meditates on Levinas’s claims concerning the enigma of the face of the Other and the ethical importance of remaining attentive to this enigmaticalness rather than reducing the Other to a caricature. The case study for this chapter is Levinas’s relationship with a fantastical and legendary Jewish mystic called Chouchani. Chouchani cultivated an air of mystery about himself; he ‘functioned as an enigma to those he taught; he intentionally kept his life a mystery from others’ (Arnett 2017: 71). The lesson Levinas drew from Chouchani’s cultivated mysteriousness, Arnett avers, was the importance of ‘patience and waiting’ (Arnett 2017: 77) – what Arnett sometimes describes as ‘existential trust’ – in interpersonal communication. That is, ethical communication requires cultivating in oneself a sensitivity to the thought that the Other always exceeds the pictures, theories and prejudices one may naturally impose on them, where the ethical task of communication is to refrain from imposing meaning on the other and rather to learn from them. As Arnett puts it, ‘the task was to learn from Chouchani, not to violate the infinity of learning. To understand from the enigma of Chouchani, one had to watch and learn without the assurance of one’s assessment of this man of difference’ (Arnett 2017: 84). The appeal to Levinas’s relationship to Chouchani is interesting and informative. But it leads me to wonder how much of an exemplar Chouchani actually is for communication ethics: Is cultivating a sense of mystery around oneself and refusing to answer other’s questions in a straightforward way ethically commendable? This seems debatable. Furthermore, to my mind, there is a philosophical worry arising from the lesson taught by Chouchani – at least as it is presented by Arnett – namely, that interpersonal communication requires patience and waiting. The worry is that by overstating the enigma of the Other, one will be lead to confusion and paralysis in one’s interpersonal communications. Surely there are many things about the Other that are self-evident? This is not to contest the important point made in the chapter, but just to urge caution and restraint in stating it: The point, surely, is not simply that we should behold the deep enigma of the other, but, more modestly, that we should remain sensitive to the other’s alterity in our encounter with them.
Chapter 4 looks to Levinas’s text Proper Names. The chapter is comprised of an informative reconstruction of the text, in which Levinas discusses his relations with the thought of figures that influenced his way of thinking, such as Kierkegaard, and his philosophical, theological and literary contemporaries, like Martin Buber. The philosophical point made in this chapter is that proper names occupy a particular place in language in that, while they are part of linguistic system of symbols that make up the Said, they resist full incorporation into the Said and retain a ‘trace’ of Saying. Arnett illustrates this point by way of an episode in To Kill a Mocking Bird in which Scout manages to keep an angry mob at bay by calling on the proper names of some of the members of the mob. In a sense, the philosophical point made here compliments and tempers the one made in the previous chapter: While there is an intrinsic enigmaticalness to the Other, they also have a name, and that name has an important ethical resonance that seems to bridge the distinction between the Saying – and the enigma of the Other more generally – and the Said.
The fifth chapter turns to a discussion of ‘the impersonal’ and ‘the sacred.’ The chapter aims to investigate ‘the pragmatic limits of a personal consideration that seeks to possess certainty of answers for the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 115). As its case study, this chapter looks to Gregory Bateman’s book Angel’s Fear: Towards and Epistemology of the Sacred. The central insight of Bateman’s text taken up by Arnett is the thought that it is sometimes important to leave certain dimensions of interpersonal communication inexplicit and unarticulated, where this sometimes involves acknowledging, rather than trying to overcome, one’s epistemic limitations and embracing forms of ‘metaphorical understanding’ (Arnett 2017: 119). Turning to Levinas, Arnett pursues a comparative discussion of Levinas and Kant based on Catherine Chalier’s text What Ought I to Do? Morality in Kant and Levinas. Arnett’s aim here is to elucidate Levinas’s emphasis on the importance of a disinterested – rather than self-interested – stance and the correlative importance of embracing an impersonal rather than personalized relation to the other in interpersonal communication. Arnett concludes by claiming that ‘for Levinas, the sacred embraces ethics devoid of reification and imposition. Ethics has an impersonal cast of disinterest that nourishes the sacred dimension of the human condition’ (Arnett 2017: 128). The difficulties of this chapter stem initially from the fact that it is not clear in what way Arnett’s introduction of notions such as the sacred, the impersonal and disinterestedness move the discussion forward: How does the conclusion reached in this chapter add to the conclusion in chapter 3 concerning the importance of remaining sensitive to the enigma of the Other? Moreover, Arnett’s introduction of such loaded terms as ‘the sacred’ and his comparative discussion of Levinas and Kant may seem to muddy the waters: The introduction of a dimension of the sacred into his discussion invites familiar worries concerning the secular intelligibility of Levinas’s theologically-inspired ethics, and his comparison of the impersonal in Kant, which is based in the impersonality of reason, with the impersonal in Levinas, which is based in the face of the Other, invites a different set of difficulties concerning the normative foundations of Levinas’s ethics.
Chapter six concerns Levinas’s conception of justice, where Arnett draws on Umberto Eco’s celebrated novel The Name of the Rose as a case study. Arnett notes that justice is a protean term in Levinas’s oeuvre and, for that reason, is difficult to pin down. However, Arnett focuses on one core feature of Levinas’s notion of justice, namely, that it involves an attentiveness to ‘the Third,’ or the wider community of individuals, who temper the face-to-face relation in important ways. More specifically, Arnett emphasises that Levinas’s notion of justice draws our attention to the disempowered and voiceless members of the community. The importance of this point for Levinas’s philosophy and, Arnett suggests, for communication ethics more generally, is in balancing one’s immediate obligations to the Other in the face-to-face relation with the wider demands of the community – and specifically the oppressed and the voiceless within society. As Arnett explains, Levinas’s notion of justice introduces ‘a form of equality and measure’ (Arnett 2017: 147).
The seventh chapter considers the News of the World phone-hacking scandal from a Levinasian perspective. The moral failings exemplified in the phone-hacking scandal are obvious: They reflected an intrusive invasion of privacy for the sake of producing sensational news stories that, in some cases, seriously affected the lives of those involved. However, from a Levinasian perspective, Arnett avers, the phone-hacking scandal ‘functions as an exemplar of Levinas’s critique of the West seduced by the demand for totality. This story displays possession at work with little resistive creative thought that invites space for reflection on the “should”; instead decisions emerge from the technological “can,” alone’ (Arnett 2017: 159). In other words, for Arnett, the phone-hacking scandal is seen to be symptomatic of a need to know everything, so to speak; to recuperate everything into the totality of the Same. And Levinas’s ethical philosophy ‘awakens’ us to this damaging tendency through his critique of the primacy of ontology. Construed as a chapter about the lessons to be learned from the phone-hacking scandal, this point is pretty uncontroversial. However, it seems to me that the force of this argument would be stronger if Arnett had devoted more space to explaining why Levinas’s ethical philosophy helps us to expose the distinctive wrongness of the phone-hacking scandal in a way that, say, the public reaction that led to the newspaper’s closure missed. As it stands, the specific Levinasian contribution to our understanding of the wrongness of the phone-hacking scandal remains unclear.
Chapters 8 and 9 consider Levinas’s fraught relation to Heidegger. Chapter 8 considers Levinas’s experience of, and subsequent reflection on, the infamous Davos conference, where Heidegger debated the prominent neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer. There are many dimensions to the discussion in this chapter: For instance, it involves a discussion of Levinas’s reflections on his own behaviour at the conference, of his relation to humanism and to Cassier’s cosmopolitanism; and of his relation to Heidegger’s meditations on ‘dwelling’ and enrootedness. However, the central point of the chapter is that, in contrast to Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of culture’ (Arnett 2017: 184), Levinas proposes an analysis of the ethical significance of the face-to-face encounter that is pre-cultural. Chapter nine continues the discussion of Heidegger by turning to Heidegger’s notorious rectorate address in 1933, which is often seen as the moment where Heidegger was most aligned with the Nazi project. In discussing Levinas’s response to Heidegger, Arnett claims that, on the one hand, Levinas was concerned to move away from the kind of existential phenomenology promoted by Heidegger – which focuses on dwelling and enrootedness – by ‘re-transcendentalizing’ (Arnett 2017: 214) his own philosophy in terms of an analysis of the transcendence of the Other. However, curiously, on the other hand, Arnett concludes with the thought that ‘Levinas understood ethics as dwelling within the concrete in contrast to Heidegger’s notion of dwelling, which is “spare” and seeks to “preserve”’ (Arnett 2017: 218). From an exegetical perspective, the claim that Levinas understood ethics as dwelling seems very dubious: While it is true that ‘the dwelling’ forms part of Levinas’s architectonic in Totality and Infinity, it is treated as a function of separated being – not as the place of ethics as Arnett implies. Furthermore, when compared with Arnett’s earlier claim, that Levinas sought to ‘re-transcendentalize’ phenomenology, and, thus, move away from Heidegger’s focus on dwelling and enrootedness, Arnett’s argument in this chapter is apt to confuse.
The final chapter discusses Levinas’s thinking on death, as laid out in God, Death and Time, in conjunction with Jacques Derrida’s text Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. In contrast to Heidegger, for whom resolutely facing up to one’s own death is a central aspect of authenticity, Levinas emphasises the death of others. As Arnett puts it, ‘the death of another awakens my ethical responsibility, and my own death calls forth responsibility in another’ (Arnett 2017: 231). More specifically, on Arnett’s reconstruction, Levinas holds that the Other’s calling us to responsibility survives their death. We might think, for instance, how the memory of a loved one who has passed away exerts an influence on our behaviour. Then, without much ceremony, Arnett finishes his text, concluding that ‘communication ethics, for Levinas, resists an apriori metaphysic, the imposition of a code or procedure, and, fundamentally, the self-righteous smirk of a knowing do-gooder. Communication ethics dwells in an immemorial space before, beyond, and ever more powerful than death itself’ (Arnett 2017: 245).
In concluding this review, I will return to the framing questions specified in the introduction. Namely, (1) what, if anything, can Levinasian insights concerning the fragility and uncertainty of ethical life offer in terms of practical guidance for communication? And (2) to whom is this book addressed? Concerning the first question, Arnett’s book is successful in raising some important Levinasian issues relevant to communication ethics. In particular, Arnett’s discussions of the enigma of the face and its pre-cultural ethical significance are interesting and relevant. Yet, the practical applicability of these Levinasian insights always remains in doubt. Arnett should be commended for his inventive use of examples and illustrations in attempting to apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy to concrete communication phenomena: Attempting to illustrate Levinas’s high-altitude and often ponderous path of thinking through examples is a difficult task, and Arnett’s efforts in this direction are valiant. But, in the end, it seems to me that what Arnett’s discussion demonstrates above all else is the limited applicability of Levinasian ethics to practical domains: Levinas’s ethical philosophy is descriptive and speculative, and resists direct and prescriptive application to empirical events. Whether this signals a weakness in Arnett’s text or a limitation of Levinas’s philosophy, of course, remains debatable.
Concerning the second question, there seems to be an unresolved issue in the text concerning how much the discussion is supposed to constitute a critique of communication ethics as it is often practiced and how much the discussion is supposed to constitute a modification of it. If Arnett intended the former, then he certainly shies away from making this explicit. Yet, if he intended the latter, then lingering issues concerning Levinas’s reservations towards ‘rhetoric’ and the compatibility of Levinas’s methodological framework with the more empirically-focused resources and methodologies on which Arnett draws remain unanswered. Moreover, I feel the text often sacrifices the task of detailed exegesis of Levinas’s texts for the sake of discussions of empirical case studies and their Levinasian resonances. As a result, there is a surprising omission of any sustained discussion of Levinas’s important interventions into the nature of language and discourse in Totality and Infinity and communication in Otherwise than Being, for instance, where such discussions would, to my mind, have contributed to a more satisfying argument. Nonetheless, Arnett’s text contains many interesting and important insights and will surely stimulate further discussion within the field of communication ethics.
Arnett, R. C., Review of Ronald C. Arnett Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 2017
Cheney, G., et al., ‘Encountering Communication Ethics in the Contemporary World: Principles, People, Contexts’ in Cheney, G., May, S., & Munshi, D., Eds., The Handbook of Communication Ethics. London: Routledge. 2011: pp. 1-14
Janicaud, D., ‘The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology.’ Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn:” The French Debate. Trans. B. G. Prusak. New York: Fordham University Press. 2000: pp. 16-103.
Levinas, E., Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo. Trans. R. A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 1985.
Levinas, E., Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. A. Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 2012.
Morgan, M. L., The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: CUP. 2011.
Perpich, D., ‘Don’t try this at home: Levinas and Applied Ethics’ in Davidson, S., & Perpich, D., Eds. Totality and Infinity at 50. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 2012: pp. 127-152
Stern, R., The Radical Demand in Løgstrup’s Ethics. Oxford: OUP. Forthcoming.
 Cf. Levinas (1985): 22.
 Cf. Janicaud (2000) and Stern (forthcoming), Ch. 9 for two examples of these criticisms.
 Cf. Levinas 2012: ‘The primary agreement, to live, does not alienate the I but maintains it, constitutes its being at home with itself. The dwelling, inhabitation, belongs to the essence –to the egoism – of the I.’ (143)