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The Flickering and often Dim Light of Biography: Arendt on Action and Authorship

Thu, August 31, 10:00 to 11:30am, Hilton Union Square, Golden Gate 6


“Storytelling” is often identified as a significant methodological dimension of Arendt’s thought. Indeed, some argue that her commitments to plurality and world-building are drawn precisely from the communicative practices underlying storytelling, while others suggest that her presentation of stories across her oeuvre performs these very commitments. While Arendt’s affinity for storytelling is undeniable, the general agreement over this affinity among her interpreters obscures the precise relationship between her engagements in storytelling and the theoretical account of the activities that make up the vita activa. Are Arendt’s stories simply enactments of a methodological “position” spelled out in her theoretical works? Do stories do something to her audiences that her theory otherwise cannot? What, in other words, are the political implications of the interplay between the theoretical and literary dimensions of Arendt’s thought?
In this paper, I challenge the presumption that Arendt’s own engagement in storytelling straightforwardly reflects her theoretical account of this practice most prominently articulated in The Human Condition (THC). I do so by juxtaposing THC’s formulation of Arendt’s exemplary mode of storytelling – biography - to that of her biographical works written during the decade following the 1958 publication of THC and organized into the 1968 work Men in Dark Times (MDT).
I locate a tension between the two works’ accounts of biography. THC maintains a static distinction between the disclosure of the “who” of action and its reification in the “fabrication” of biography. While agents intervene into an “existing web of human relationships” maintained by the “artifice” of human fabrications, action itself remains distinct from the means-ends, reifying activity of work. Biography’s position between action’s self-disclosure and work’s reification thus points to a broad political implication: agents set political processes into motion but cannot be the authors of their own life stories - the web of human relationships resists such an assertion of political “mastery,” and so the imposition of instrumental thinking into politics implies a fundamental misunderstanding of its logic.
MDT in turn offers a set of biographical accounts against the backdrop of an early-twentieth century context. Yet it also departs from THC’s theorization of biography between the distinct activities of work and action in ways that go unexplored. For one, the subjects of these biographies are largely authors rather than the action-oriented “heroes” celebrated in THC. Insofar as they enter the web of human relations, these subjects disclose precisely their commitments to the reification of the events and life stories that constitute their political context. MDT thus blurs the relationship between action and the artifice from which it arises in significant ways: the subjects of MDT are themselves the storytellers who, in THC, would remain largely outside of the public realm, while their “actions” are less premised on the existence of a robust web of human relationships than committed to maintaining it even as it crumbles. These biographies are presented precisely such that it is difficult to determine where “fabrication” ends and “action” begins.
I argue that the differences between HTC and MDT reflect Arendt’s ongoing revaluation of the production and political implications of biography prompted by two intervening developments. First is Eichmann’s failure to disclose much of anything as an agent, which in turn throws the relationship between his testimony and Arendt’s own activity of reification into question. And second is the post-Eichmann controversy where the veracity of Arendt’s accounts of events is doubted, in turn prompting her consideration of a much more fraught relationship between action and the communicative practices that maintain it in her essay “Truth and Politics.” Arendt’s engagements with these developments reveal fundamental challenges for the communicative dynamics out of which biographies arise: they should raise further questions for whether the presentation of biographies is itself a form of action, for what sorts of actors should be the legitimate subjects of biographies, and for what sort of audience biographies are for.
In blurring the relationship between politics and fabrication, MDT does more than simply reflect Arendt’s general affinity for storytelling. Rather, it engages the above developments by thematizing the political significance of authorship for Arendt’s thought. Presented as a mediating figure between work and action, I argue that the author further intervenes into given social and political practices to navigate how they appear between the activities of labor, work, and action - in the case of biography, of who gets to count as the exemplary political actor, and thus of what gets to count as exemplary political action, and why. Indeed, MDT constitutes one such intervention.