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Reading Arendt: Language, Law, Politics

Mon, December 18, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Marquis Salon 15

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


Over the past year, the name Hannah Arendt has emerged as a marker of the “banality” and “radicality” of our current political moment. Across both mass and specialized media, writers have once again begun to ask “why Arendt matters” and have reignited a debate about the relevance of her best known concepts and themes. In the majority of these writings, particular attention has been paid to Zionism, the Holocaust, and Jewish history as the organizing events of her theoretical orientation. In this panel, we aim to deepen discussions of these issues by reading Arendt’s work from the three-fold perspective of language, law, and politics. What can Arendt’s experiences with linguistic difference tell us about her ambivalent relationship to Zionism? What can her writing on the concentration camps reveal about the possibility of political interpretation? And what can her comments on colonial law contribute to our understanding of modern sovereignty in the Occupied Territories and elsewhere? What, that is, can reading Arendt in these contexts tell us about the abiding consequence (or inconsequence) of her work today?

The panel opens with a paper by Na‘ama Rokem, which considers how multilingualism can shed light on Arendt’s views on Zionism. Beginning with Arendt’s trip to Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories in 1967, the paper moves on to consider a little-known Yiddish text written by Arendt on language and politics. In the second paper, Larisa Reznik juxtaposes Arendt’s writings on the concentration camps with those of Theodor Adorno. Through this comparison, the paper reflects upon the difference between “ethics” and “politics” and considers how this distinction maps a wider discourse concerning the universality or particularity of the figural “Jew.” Finally, the panel will end with a paper by Adam Stern, which compares Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) with Gershom Scholem’s essay on the Book of Jonah (1919). The paper will draw together Arendt’s comments on colonialism with Scholem’s comments on messianism to further explore the theologico-political operations of colonial law. A response by Martin Shuster will tie together the strands of these presentations and provide a starting point for wider discussion.

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