Thursday, March 26, 2020

Jeremy Arnold's "Across the Great Divide"

Jeremy Arnold is a political theorist and, most recently, was Senior Lecturer at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of State Violence and Moral Horror (2017).

Arnold applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Across the Great Divide: Between Analytic and Continental Political Theory, and reported the following:
Page 99 summarizes my reconstruction of Hannah Arendt’s theory of freedom and moves on to a further discussion of the value and importance of freedom as understood by Arendt. Very little on page 99 would seem to summarize or reveal the book as a whole. I end my discussion of Arendt’s novel and singular theory of freedom by reminding the reader that freedom for Arendt requires an act of genuine spontaneity, not fully determined by any condition, context, intention, or prior event. However, free actions are not undetermined; they are importantly limited by the need to be (at least barely) intelligible. I write:
The initiation of the new is a moment of freedom because what emerges is not fully determined by what came before. Although limited by the need to be intelligible, initiating the new is not determined by the limits of the intelligible, or by anything else. The intelligible is not fully determined, not static, and not fully determining. Modernism depends upon the relative stability, and permanent possibility of the change of, the limits of the intelligible. So does significant change in our own lives.
Page 99 does reveal a bit about how I understand Arendtian freedom, but little about Across the Great Divide as a whole.

My discussion of Arendt’s theory of freedom, and her claims about why freedom is valuable, is just a part of Across the Great Divide; but it is, perhaps, the most salient given current trends in contemporary Euro-American politics. Recent developments in right-wing politics have brought words and possibilities like “fascism”, “authoritarianism”, and “totalitarianism” back into public discourse. Before and after the 2016 American presidential election, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism was often referred to by those seeking to understand contemporary political tendencies. However, Arendt provides us not only with an analysis of totalitarianism, but a political response that challenges one of the most important causes of the desire for totalitarian politics: nihilism. As we learn in books like Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, new forms of communication allow racist, sexist, and fascist discursive tropes to circulate in an ironic, nihilistic, “doing it for the lolz” guise, while nonetheless fueling movements deeply committed to racist, sexist, and fascistic politics. A recent case of anti-semitism in a New Jersey school provides a useful recent example. Nihilism, alienation, loneliness, and resentment are all causes of totalitarianism on Arendt’s account. Challenging contemporary fascistic politics—whether from the left, the center, or right—requires beliefs, practices, and experiences that reaffirm and rejuvenate the meaningfulness and joyfulness of the shared human condition (as Arendt calls it): to pluralism, individuality, and difference; to ecologically sustainable forms of existence; to what is shared; to public goods and public life. Freedom as initiating newness—especially the freedom that comes through speaking and acting with others in public spaces—is one of those experiences. In freedom, Arendt argues, we can find a joy and meaning in shared forms of life that makes human life, with all of its suffering, not only bearable, but affirmable.

That being said, Across the Great Divide is committed to what I call—I wish it were less of a garbled mess—“aporetic cross-tradition theorizing”. In short, Arendt’s theory of freedom, however important and attractive, is still deeply problematic. In the book, I compare Arendt with the philosopher Philip Pettit, whose work on republicanism (the political form, not the party), is an equally challenging, powerful, and persuasive, if also equally problematic, theory of freedom. It is through such comparative work, I claim, that we can better understand both political theories and political phenomena.
Learn more about Across the Great Divide at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue