A Living Rebuke to the Fascism of Utter Conformity, Research Time, 3/12/2013

I started working specifically on my book proposal for the ecophilosophy project yesterday. I hope to get it finished at least over this weekend. My friend J was a big help because he recently secured a book deal with Open Humanities Press, a company that has published some books that I’ve found and admired already. He was good enough to send me a copy of his own successful proposal to inspire my own work. 

Probably my major anxiety about pitching the ecophilosophy project was that I wasn’t really sure how to approach writing a book proposal for a publisher that was of a proper format and would also accurately represent what the project was. Just as I’m more hopeful about my tenure-track job applications once I got guidance from a friend who secured a position straight out of his doctorate, I’m now optimistic about my ability to sell this publication to an academic press. It’s simply a matter of having a guide who’s slightly less lost than me. Even some established professors that I’ve spoken to have been equally at sea as a rookie when it comes to book publishing. 
But I also have some closing thoughts about Hannah Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem. If anything really bugs me about this book (and what bugs me more is its reception), it’s how hokey the phrase “banality of evil” is. It’s not hokey conceptually, but simply as a writing technique. They are simply the dramatic last three words of the main body of the book. I sometimes feel that the heavy focus on this particular phrase in Arendt scholarship is simply because she was so theatrical about its use. The last chapter ends as she describes Eichmann’s idiotic, clichéd words as he was about to be executed (“We shall all meet again”? Really? Seriously?). She concludes:
“It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us — the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
Arendt's theatrical use of the phrase 'banality of evil' in
Eichmann in Jerusalem isn't purely a philosophical
statement, but a rhetorical flourish. It's a technique better
suited to fiction or to film. This story isn't suited to a
narrative film. Oh, wait.
Too much is made of that phrase. The phrase is just one description out of many throughout the book that describes the phenomenon of Adolf Eichmann that she was trying to understand. Yet so much of what I’ve encountered in Arendt scholarship over the years spends so much ink on interpreting that phrase alone as the only one that matters in the entire book, or at least subordinating every other reflection on Eichmann’s character to that phrase. The ‘banality of evil’ phrase isn’t a summation or a definition. It’s as if generations of scholars couldn’t comprehend that this phrase was a theatrical flourish to end a long, complex philosophical-journalistic exploration. 

As I read Eichmann in Jerusalem, Adolf himself is the purest possible example of Arendt’s concept of the totalitarian mass man. This is the person whose individual agency is so utterly erased by the culture of totalitarianism that he really does, to the depths of his character, become a body part, simply one organ in a body politic. Totalitarianism, as she describes in Origins, is a movement to transform a society into a single body. In this case, there is the German body and the Jewish body, and the theorists / leaders of Germany’s totalitarian movement interpreted the Jewish body as an infection within the German body. Eichmann was no more than a lymph node in the German body, a man defined not by desires, thoughts, or individual personality and action anymore, but only by his function. He was a living argument that fascist government is a government of bureaucracy above all else, where externally-defined function in the whole is the only political action. This realization of the totalitarian (and Futurist) dream of the mass man is the real core of Eichmann in Jerusalem

In almost all the scholarly literature discussing Arendt over the years,* Eichmann in Jerusalem is interpreted in the light of this closing flourish. But there’s another point in the last chapter that I think is more important. The prosecution in Eichmann’s trial displayed a huge list of witnesses who had nothing materially to do with Eichmann’s actions: they were Holocaust survivors who had never seen Eichmann, never had any knowledge of the bureaucratic structures in which he served. Arendt mostly has contempt for this practice, as the prosecution and the Israeli state made Eichmann out to be more monstrous and satanic than he was.**

* Only Julia Kristeva’s book on Arendt has a different, and I think more accurate, focus.

The twentieth century relates the best and the worst
tendencies of nationalism. However admirable David Ben-
Gurion could be, he was just as susceptible as all of us to
the politics and moralities of resentment and rage.
** I can understand why partisans for Israel were so enraged with Arendt after this book. She essentially critiques the Israeli government and David Ben-Gurion specifically for failure to understand what international law was for. Ben-Gurion was asked at a press conference whether it would be better to try Eichmann in an international tribunal, because the crimes of the Nazis were on a scale of horror that damaged the human community as a whole. His movement treated humans not as people, but as animals to be exterminated. Conceiving of the Holocaust as pest control is literally a crime against humanity, because we can never consider humanity as having the same level of species-dignity after such an act. Yet Ben-Gurion interpreted all these questions as insults, as if it presumed the Jewish people and the Jewish state should not have the power to try and execute criminals who harmed the Jews. “Israel does not need the protection of an International Criminal Court,” Arendt quotes Ben-Gurion. It was as if instead of a gesture of solidarity with the Jewish people and Israel, Ben-Gurion only saw a condescending insult, saw Jews being treated as weak and in need of stewardship.

Arendt relates the testimony of Zindel Grynszpan, a Holocaust survivor who was the first prosecution witness at trial. He related a story much like everyone else’s, but just a little different, specific to the unique circumstances of his own life. He was similar to many others, but could still stand out from the crowd, could still be defined beyond his function. In conclusion to his story, Arendt writes that “everyone should have his day in court.” 

That’s his day to display the singularity of his personality, his history, and his life. His singular being, as it were. In a book about a man, Adolf Eichmann, whose existence and personality was the sign of totalitarianism’s achievement in creating a true mass man, Arendt includes this often-overlooked story as a rebuke. Eichmann was an ordinary, unremarkable person, a cowardly nebbish who found himself working in the machinery of human destruction. Grynszpan was an ordinary person whose expression of his history, his story, made himself a rebuke to that goal of total human uniformity. He was one man caught up in a movement amazingly larger than he was. Yet he was still a singular individual, a man unlike any other only for the reason of his existence.

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