Thinking Without Bannisters: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Dr Hugh McDonnell is based in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh as a Postdoctoral Fellow on a project assessing complicity in human rights violations. In this blog post, he discusses a recent film screening and round-table discussion event on the work of Hannah Arendt.

The enduring fascination of one of the twentieth century’s leading thinkers, commonly celebrated as highly original and unclassifiable, was explored in ‘Thinking Without Bannisters: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt’. The afternoon event brought together specialists and interested amateurs alike to view Ada Ushpiz’s new documentary ‘Vita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt.’ This was followed by a round-table session, featuring three foremost Arendt scholars: Professor Patrick Hayden from International Relations (University of St Andrews), Liisi Keedus from Politics (University of York), and historian Stephan Malinowski (University of Edinburgh).

Ushpiz’s documentary explored Arendt’s life and thought in their mutual interconnections. This included an overview of her formative years as a child in a German-Jewish family in Königsberg and Berlin, before discussing her developing and already prodigious intellectual curiosity at the universities of Marburg and Heidelberg, and the formative intellectual and personal influences of philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers.

Naturally, Arendt’s experience and reflections on the Second World War loom large in the film. Her own experiences disposed her to reflect on the condition of being a refugee, to think through the radical rightlessness that this implied. Consideration of Arendt’s famous formulation of the ‘banality of evil’ drew on fascinating original film footage of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, which Arendt attended. Ushpiz does not circumvent controversies surrounding Arendt herself, as interviewees reflected on hostile reactions to Arendt’s work, particularly Eichmann in Jerusalem, as well as, more specifically, her controversial analysis of the Judenräte.

The round-table discussion was opened by Patrick Hayden’s evocative and thought-provoking disquisition on Arendt’s metaphor of the desert as her attempt to understand individuals’ thoughtless flights from the strangeness and suffering of the political world. On this basis, he developed Arendt’s insights into suffering as the other side of action, that at the same time extends an appeal to our joint responsibility to say “enough” and reaffirm the boundaries of politics. Liisi Keedus spoke next about the intellectual history of ‘thinking without bannisters’, tracing its roots to the modern gap between past and future, while revealing its broader purchase as condition of resistant action. And before opening the floor to questions, Stephan Malinowski reflected on the originality of Arendt’s work from a historian’s perspective, suggesting the fertility of the ideas and questions she raised, and the distinctly interesting character of the answers she reached, even when they strike us as mistaken. Questions from the floor prompted the panel to further reflect on the contemporary relevance of Arendt’s thought: the novel insights she offered in terms of the systemic rather than personalised logic of injustice and violence, her attentiveness to the vulnerabilities of democracy, or her staunch resistance to truth claims that have lost an anchor in political reality. Audience members were left with plenty of food for thought to consider further the meaning of Arendt’s independent thinking, judgement, and responsibility at the present historical juncture.

This event was hosted at the University of Edinburgh, and was made possible by the funding of the Global Justice Academy and Global Development Academies’ Innovative Initiative Fund, as well as the School of Social and Political Science through the Research Student-Led Special Projects Grant. 

More about the author:

Dr McDonell completed his PhD at the University of Amsterdam where he worked between the Department of European Studies and the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis. His work Europeanising Spaces in Paris, c. 1947-1962 (Liverpool University Press, 2016) examines ways in which ideas about Europe and Europeanness were articulated and contested in politics, culture, and the Parisian urban landscape. McDonell is also working as a Postdoctoral Fellow on a European Research Council Starting Grant ‘Grey Zone’ project examines complex complicity from historical and theoretical perspectives. More about the project is available here: http://blogs.sps.ed.ac.uk/greyzone/ 

You can read more about complicity in human rights violations in this blog by Dr Mihaela Mihia, Senior Research Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.globaljusticeblog.ed.ac.uk/2017/02/20/peace-and-conflict-series-4/

 

Leave a Reply