Hannah Arendt's tactlessness: reading Eichmann in Jerusalem

New Formations - ISSN 0950-2378
Volume 2010 Number 71

Hannah Arendt's tactlessness: reading Eichmann in Jerusalem
Simon Swift pages -


This essay engages with the problem of Arendt’s historical style, particularly the style of Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) and what Gersholm Scholem described as its lack of feeling for the suffering of others, its lack of Herzenstakt. Arendt thought that totalitarianism had changed the way in which history must be written; in particular, she thought that the extermination of the Jews of Europe meant that historical writing could no longer conform to classical standards of dispassion and withhold anger. In light of this claim, I examine anger in Arendt’s writing in relation both to her reflections on the cognitive meaning of anger in On Violence, particularly the anger of the Black Power movement, but also (and more expansively) the tactlessness of her writing both about Eichmann and the survivor testimony that formed the ‘background’ to his trial. By drawing on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s arguments about the importance of tact, and the ancient Stoic formulation of sensus communis for the methodology of the human sciences, I read Arendt’s tactless, abrasive style not as simply dismissive towards the suffering of others, but rather as a key expression of her understanding of political modernity. Arendt’s tactlessness signals, I argue, what she thinks of as an abandonment of the political language of ‘sentiment.’ Again, such an abandonment, I argue, is a result of the pressure that totalitarianism had placed on the possibilities of political and historical writing.

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To cite this article
Simon Swift (2010) Hannah Arendt's tactlessness: reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, New Formations, 2010(71), -

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