Vered Engelhard | Meditations Through a State in Emergency: Reading The Origins of Totalitarianism

By Vered Engelhard

While a number of my professors told me that they do not participate on social media for political reasons, I couldn’t help thinking about how my generation doesn’t have the luxury of withholding our information from the big corporations. Facebook and Twitter have been instrumental in getting millennials through this election. And especially now that it is up to us to mobilize, the thought of deleting my Facebook feels like nihilism. One of the many effective modes of resistance against the president elect before the election was in not naming him: Using nicknames or censoring his last name like we do with swear words. This was in order to prevent the Facebook algorithm (which only now is being rethought in these terms), from picking up the mentioning of this noun and grouping it into a “trend.” By naming the Evil, we make it trendy. This strategy allows our language to perform resistance. Yet changing our cognitive habits by entangling in language games of militancy also entails a certain approach towards aggression: The insulation of our social spheres. And if the voice of the algorithm wasn’t loud enough to construct a wall of noise around the young Left, it was our very performativity, in all of its aggressiveness, which sealed the limits of our “bubble.”

The intersection of Hannah Arendt and Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t have been more appropriate for a seminar last Thursday. The evening opened up with a mention of the ressentiment of our “bubble.” The consensus was the belief that our most important strategy is to break this bubble. And this word “bubble” keeps reverberating, for now we realize that such is the specificity of our site when reading the New York Times, or protesting outside of the Trump tower in a blue metropolitan city. The emphasis here is on being outside: We are breaking the bubble. The elections are over, and now it is time to face Evil as we must currently name it.

This ressentiment is itself what gave rise to Donald Trump as the symbol that unleashed the massive hate-speech outbreak of the last few days. And through this same symbol, the ressentiment is now transferred to us. I keep reading The Origins of Totalitarianism, and it’s been so clear all this time, all the signs were there. We didn’t fail to see them, but rather we saw everything.  I argue that our first real failure lies within our greater faith in quantitative analysis. We, too fell prey to ideology. As Arendt reads: “Ideological thinking orders facts into an absolutely logical procedure which starts from an axiomatic premise, deducing everything else from it; that is, it proceeds from a consistency that exists nowhere else in reality.” (OT 471). Our failure is our blind faith in the polling process, and the psychosocial aspects it overlooks. Yet more importantly, and also more ambitiously, our failure is our blind faith in technocracy: When we hire, when we admit students, when we teach them the “tools of the trade.”

If we truly want to break this bubble, this failure cannot end in deception. Nietzsche is right in saying that the affirmation of reality is our most difficult “overcoming.” Breaking our bubble, insulated with algorithmic language-games, is no easy matter, and it should be done very carefully. In order to break the bubble, we need to apply serious force, which will bounce back in one way or another. This is first a task of deconstruction and foremost a question of life and death. Our physical safety should be our most important concern.

Perhaps this is a sense in which we can begin to understand the contemporaneity of Nietzsche’s advocacy for a new “physiology of art” (NCW 187). The physiological dimension stems from Nietzsche’s own expanded sense of the word “art”, as he writes early on, speaking of us as “artistically creating subject[s]” by virtue of possessing a “primal faculty of human fantasy” [“Unvermögen menschlicher Phantasie”] (TF 1). So when Nietzsche refers to “art” as the “countermovement” against nihilism (WP 321), he is speaking about an entirely new relationship to fantasy, which must emerge as a critique of reality. It can be argued that in Nietzsche, the difference between truth and falsehood is one of duration; “truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions” (TF 4); as well as one of intensity; “worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses” (TF 4). From here we can start deriving the necessity of the countermovement to be a “new” -hence not forgotten- “physiognomy” –hence a powerful affect- of “art” –our primal faculty of human fantasy.

This Unvermögen doesn’t disappear from Nietzsche; rather it gets absorbed into his general concept of the “will” as a faculty that expresses the creative movement. In The Life of the Mind, Arendt speaks of the two major historical definitions of the will as choice (liberum arbitrium) and intuition (intuitium ut esset homo creatus es in Augustine). The former appears in philosophical systems that, qua systems, place the power of the will in a notion of futurity that reconciles personal freedom with a collective progress. The latter places the power of the will in its being creative. Intuition would then be another name for our primal creative faculty, and its power would manifest itself as such only when bringing forth a new beginning.

Nietzsche himself never defines the will, unless perhaps in an instance that Arendt calls a “perfect metaphor”: A fragment of the Nachlass titled “Will and Wave.” In The Life of the Mind, Arendt argues they are the same. She speaks of this as a “fundamental anthropomorphism”; an instance where “the appearances of the world become a mere symbol for inward experiences with the consequence that metaphor (…) collapses.” Such expression is “a partisanship for man’s soul apparatus, whose experiences are understood as absolute primacy” (LM 166). I believe that the “perfect metaphor” is the moment that proves the sphere of the symbolic to have absolute relevance in our creative resistance towards a new beginning.

Last Thursday, a pressing point of the debate was Arendt’s concept of “nativity” in relation to her ideas on “beginnings.” This was paired up with our capacity for “mobilization of facts.” Perhaps our banners should read perfect metaphors instead of soothing persuasions. Tags like #notmypresident, phrases like “Stronger Together”, chants like “This is what democracy look like” all point towards a sort of consistency with the world that is, in fact, the character disposition of “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule.” This type of banner, signifying unity, in fact reflects a lonely subject; someone that is one with the world, falling upon ideologies of consistency, a technocrat “for which the distinction between reality and fiction doesn’t exist.” (OT 474)

The lonely subject is one with this totalitarian regime. He knows no resistance. He is either an uncritical subject benefiting from the status quo, or he owes his existence to ressentiment. Donald Trump himself, in order to be so inhumane, must possess a psychopathy that renders him truly lonely, trapped in logical chains of consistency, which strips him of the ability to feel empathy. One could argue the same for Mike Pence or Reince Priebus, and probably most of his cabinet. No wonder that they are so successful. Isn’t this kind of lonely psychopath the ideal neo-liberal subject?

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt introduces the character of a totalitarian regime as an “organized loneliness.” Whenever we comply, speak of ourselves as a “unified nation”, and rely on mainstream media to mobilize our facts, we become part of such organization. All instances of unity, then, are extremely dangerous, for ideology has no other life than that of logical chains of consistency which organize loneliness. Ideology is itself a modality of mobilization of facts, which can’t be recognized as anything other than affective unities (i.e. mainstream media calming our fear by saying how Donald Trump is also scared of being president). These affects are contagious, for they keep our will trapped in oscillation between pleasure and pain principles: Such is the risk that our will is thrown into. To overcome this oscillatory reification, the will requires a greater force in order to transform this risk into opportunity for a new beginning. This overcoming is the orientation of our life force towards creation. The will has to gain force from life by affirming it in order to overflow from it with a different form.

A protest chant like: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” reflects the fact that our fight begins with the realization that we’re being thrown into ideologies of consistency; where the opportunity arises for our will to power to exercise itself by constantly living in difference. This entails a will that doesn’t “trick” itself with a fulfilled synthesis of an “I” that pivots in certainty between the pleasure and pain principle. Rather, a will that overflows into the world with the joy of creation; giving birth to a fantasy that emerges out of an overflowing reality as its critique.

If the base of totalitarian rule is our own force of mobilization, resistance presupposes subjects living in difference, strategically drawing the line between reality and fiction. As partisans for a new reality, aiming for our fiction to be a perfect metaphor would turn us into the Nietzschean “Artist-philosopher” testing “whether one can distance oneself enough from others in order to give them form” (WP 795). Here partisanship is key, for the aim is a non-reactionary disruption that is, an affirmative critique. Yet again, the foremost thing is to keep our force of mobilization going in order to sustain our partisanship. That is, to keep the will overflowing by empowering it with affects of resistance. For this last point I quote Arendt at length:

“Totalitarian rulers rely on the compulsion with which we can compel ourselves, for the limited mobilization of people which even they still need; this inner compulsion is the tyranny of logicality against which nothing stands but the great capacity of man to start something new. The tyranny of logicality begins with the mind’s submission to logic as a never-ending process, on which man relies in order to engender his thoughts. By this submission, he surrenders his inner freedom as she surrenders her freedom of movement when she bows down to an outward tyranny. Freedom as an inner capacity of people is identical with the capacity to begin, just as freedom as a political reality is identical with a space of movement between people. Over the beginning, no logic, no cogent deduction can have any power (…) Totalitarian government can be safe only to the extent that it can mobilize people’s own will power in order to force them into that gigantic movement of History or Nature which supposedly uses mankind as its material and knows neither birth nor death.” (OT 473)


Works cited:

OT       – Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 2nd edition. 1968.

NCW   – Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche Contra Wagner. Trans, Walter Kauffman.

TF       – Nietzsche, Friedrich. Concerning the Truth and Falsehood in an Extramoral Sense. Tans, Walter Kauffman.

WP      – Nietzsche, Friedrich. Will to Power. Ed, Walter Kauffman. Trans, Walter Kauffman and R. J. Hollingdale

LM      – Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. 2nd edition. 1977.

One Comment

  1. ¡Sólo en tanto creador!
    Esto me ha causado el mayor trabajo y continúa causándome el mayor trabajo: darse cuenta que es indeciblemente más importante m cómo se llaman las cosas, antes que lo que ellas son. La reputación» nombre y apariencia, la vigencia, la medida y el peso usual de una cosa —que en la mayoría de los casos es en su origen un error y una arbitrariedad, arrojada a las cosas como un vestido que es completamente ajeno a su esencia e incluso a su piel—, paulatinamente se han arraigado y encarnado, por decirlo así,en las cosas, convirtiéndose en su propio cuerpo, mediante la creencia en ellas y su continuo crecimiento de generación en generación; ¡la apariencia del comienzo se convierte casi siempre al final en la esencia y actúa como esencia!
    ¡Qué sería esto para un loco que allí opinase que bastaría con señalar hacia este origen y a este velo de niebla de la locura para aniquilar al mundo que se considera esencial, a la así llamada «realidad»! ¡Sólo en tanto creadores podemos aniquilar!.
    Pero tampoco olvidemos esto: basta con crear nuevos nombres y valoraciones y probabilidades, para crear a la larga nuevas «cosas».

    Nietzsche, Gaya Scienza, 58.

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