Arendtian Natality, Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and Antinatalism

Because of my work on Hannah Arendt, I often struggle with the apparent incongruity between her account of natality and my own tendency towards antinatalism.

Natality is at the heart of Arendt’s project, a rejection of the Heideggerian obsession with mortality and being-towards-death:

“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”

While it’s true that Arendt didn’t simply mean the biological act of giving birth when she described natality, this biological fact is at the heart of her insight into the novelty and unforeseen circumstances of political action, since it introduces new selves into a world that would otherwise become increasingly familiar.

“Objectively, that is, seen from the outside and without taking into account that man is a beginning and a beginner, the chances that tomorrow will be like yesterday are always overwhelming. Not quite so overwhelming, to be sure, but very nearly so as the chances were that NO earth would ever rise out of cosmic occurrences, that NO life would develop out of inorganic processes, that NO man would emerge out of the evolution of animal life. The decisive difference between the “infinite improbabilities” on which the reality of our earthly life rests and the miraculous character inherent in those events which establish historical reality is that, in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them— men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.”

One cannot help hearing Arendt’s Jewishness in the attribution of a miraculous power of renewal and unprecendentedness to natality. This is partly a reflection of certain Jewish tropes like Tikkun Olam, which is used in an ordinary sense to indicate the “public interest” but carries a theological connotation, since it literally means to “repair of the world,” in the Manichean sense described by Isaac Luria: that the world was formed through the shattering or rupture of the divine, and it is our job to restore the divine’s unity. One gloss on this restoration is that “be fruitful and multiply” is the first command given by God, and there is a sense in Arendt that the “new ones” may include our political messiah, the actor whose words or deeds may salvage our shared world. (Luria, however, taught that this entailed a Zionist return from the Diaspora, which Arendt recognized as impossible.)

Yet part of the fundamental antinatalist objection is that giving birth is a existentially weighty act that we do on another’s behalf: we bring a new person into the world who must receive the gift of existence without a right to refuse it. Better Never to Have Been tries to captures some of the ways that this may be a harm, but I primarily worry that bringing more children into an already crowded world is a kind of trespass that Arendt noted would always be a risk in acting.

Continue reading Arendtian Natality, Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and Antinatalism

Charity as a Flight from Politics

Part 1: Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility
Part 2: Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
Part 3: A Duty to Forgive?
Part 4: Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
Part 5: Charity as a Flight from Politics
Part 6: Publicity without Politics

Auden’s criticisms of Arendt explicily call for a flight into the invisible and eternal world, which comes at the cost of politics and especially political judgment. In The Human Condition, Arendt described this flight from the world as a response to the destruction of the world itself. Early Christians sought “to find a bond between people strong enough to replace the world” because the Roman Empire had violently undermined their pre-existing basis of public appearance and collective action. Arendt ascribes responsibility for the politicization of the “consciously and radically antipolitical character of Christianity” to Augustine, “precisely because an extraordinary tradition of Roman thought still lived on in him.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 138) It was Augustine who helped the Church to “secularize the Christian flight into seclusion,” rendering the private religious lives of the community once again public and ecclesiastical. In so doing, he helped the faithful to “constitute within the world a totally new, religiously defined public space, which, although public, was not political.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 139) In short, it is Augustine who invents the publicity without politics that had remained the ideal for a certain kind of intellectual and spiritual life. Continue reading Charity as a Flight from Politics

Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility

Part 1: Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility
Part 2: Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
Part 3: A Duty to Forgive?
Part 4: Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
Part 5: Charity as a Flight from Politics
Part 6: Publicity without Politics

In The Human Condition Arendt staked out a position that action’s novel self-disclosure comes at a price: irreversibility and unpredictability “being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing….” (Arendt The Human Condition, 237) In her efforts to demonstrate that willing occurs without the determination of thinking, she presents us with an account of freedom indistinguishable from randomness. Arendt’s actors ‘know not what they do’ until they have done it, and afterwards they observe and evaluate the consequences as if they were spectators and not agents themselves: an action worthy of the name is unforeseeable even to oneself.

Arendt wrote that “the remedy against the irreversibility and unpredictability of the process started by action does not arise out of another and possibly higher faculty, but it is one of the potentialities of action itself.” (Arendt The Human Condition, 236-7) In contrast with labor, the experience of which can only be salvaged because the laborer exists within a world created by work, or with work, which creates a world of static perpetuity unless natality and action interrupt its sterility, action cannot withdraw itself or find in the contemplative faculties a predictive measure that could reign in its excesses. Thus, Arendt suggests, only a second action, an act of forgiveness, can make the inevitability of trespass sufferable.
Continue reading Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility

Refugee Life

“We must… build our political philosophy anew starting from the one and only figure of the refugee.” (Giorgio Agamben)

If the nation-state is in decline, it is principally because the nation-form, that coalition of fellow natives born of common blood and soil has given way to the denizen-foreigner: the resident-alien who through dint of illegal entry or barriers to naturalization inhabitants a land in which she is not granted the full rights of citizens. It has become popular to decry the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Men and of Citizens for failing to differentiate between human rights in general and those guaranteed only by the state to which one belongs, and no one has done a better job of pinpointing this failure than Hannah Arendt, in her book on totalitarianism, in her essays, and in her self-identification as a refugee without a home or the possibility of return.

Yet if we are to take Agamben’s prescription to heart, we must go beyond the attempts to integrate the fluid populations of mobile workers and refugees of political turmoil into our already existing nation-states. Already, the EU begins to provide a model for a mobile citizenry, maintaining both national sovereignty and the right of transit for those lucky enough to have come from member-states rather than those pariah-states that supply Europe with cheap labor. Yet in size and in delimitation, the EU does nothing more than regionalize the state. It accomplishes no great advances in the science of regimes, it does nothing to reduce the problems of non-citizens or to replace or re-constitute politics around the figure of the refugee.

I find it interesting that the classic ‘civic republicans’ (Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau) all conceive of law-giving (constitution-writing, really) as an act of either a god or a foreign wiseman. A stranger must give a place its laws because only a stranger can be trusted to do so fairly; anyone who expected to be ruled by the law would naturally write laws to benefit herself. As such, the stranger appears a divine figure; he (and it is invariably a male figure) necessarily comes from another world, because the world he is constituting is by definition not the world in which he was born. Even Moses got his nation’s laws from a non-Jew (his father-in-law) and his commandments from God. I would argue that we all appear as strangers to the world we would like to build for ourselves, and as such it is wholly consistent to give our neighbors an equal right to this self-rule.

The problem, here, goes beyond the practical question of the advantages sacrificed in order to share our democracy with strangers. In fact, we must really get rid of the notion of local self-governance if we are truly going to embrace the refugee; it is not simply a matter of naturalizing non-citizens who happen to inhabitant our space, but of remaking the juridical and political order so that fresh immigrants and unexpected guests are the equally empowered. This would be a democracy of those who have yet-to-arrive, which is my own version of Derrida’s famous “democracy a-venir,” the democracy-to-come or the future democracy.

And here I run into difficulties: what could it possibly mean to build a politics of those who are not present? I suspect it would involve a hearty embrace of the constitutional process, by which reconstitution was a regular activity rather than a hallowed moment in the dreary history books. Jefferson never thought the US Constitution would last: he figured we might have twenty years of peace before the slavery question, and the general orneriness of the states, drove us back to the bargaining table.

Yet the constitutional moment is also the most exciting indication of the human potential for political genius. It shows us the meaning of political novelty, since what the founders consituted were their own origins. They gave birth to themselves, which is what Arendt loves most about contrasting Heidegger’s being-towards-death with natality. And in so doing they supplied us a potent model, worthy of repetition rather than simply homage and obsequious self-abnegation. And in many ways, that’s exactly what’s at stake in the tradition that treats the US Constitution as a living document, capable of re-interpretation and re-parsing, available for amendation, dripping with infinite meanings, intertextuality, and all the rest of the Lit. Crit. jargon that does away with certainty and literalism.

Of course, new modes of reading won’t help us with the Swarzenegger problem, or the status of Latinos, or national language issues. But it tastes grand, doesn’t it?