For a change of pace…
In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt makes the argument that one of the reasons the French Revolution took such a violent and authoritarian turn was that it allowed the social question—simplistically put, issues of poverty and the poor—to enter and then dominate public discussion. Unlike the American Revolution, which was more properly concerned with truly political questions like the organization of public power, constitutions, and civic action. Once issues of economic need are put on the table, Arendt suggests, tyranny cannot be far off. So pressing and overwhelming are the physical needs of the body, so much do they cry out for our response, that they almost introduce, by their very nature, an element of compulsion into public life. That compulsion mirrors the compulsion of biology. Such needs are best left in the shadows.
Arendt also claims that an additional driving force toward tyranny in the French Revolution lay in the revolutionaries’ horror of hypocrisy, their desire to take off the public masks we all present once we enter the world of our peers. Inspired by Rousseau, Robespierre and the Jacobins sought to strip the person of her inevitably public persona, to make inner self coincide with outer presentation. (Trilling makes a similar argument in Sincerity and Authenticity, though he refracts the point through a discussion of Jane Austen, as I recall.)
I’m not sure if Arendt explicitly says this or not (it’s been about five years since I taught On Revolution), but there’s also a suggestion in the text that the drive against hypocrisy and desire for sincerity, with its manic hunt for any signs of deception or doubt in the inner self, is related to the rise of the social question, the entrance onto the public stage of those orders of society that had been previously hidden behind the walls of the household. Following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, Arendt suggests that when the laboring orders of society barge into public life, they inevitably will take down all the barriers that previously separated the hidden recesses of society from the stage of politics.
Now this is a vastly simplified—and, to be honest, vulgar—version of Arendt’s much more complicated and interesting argument. (I’ve just read an amazing article, forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, by Steven Klein, who’s a grad student at the University of Chicago, that’s going to totally change how we think about Arendt’s understanding of the social question in the modern age.) But I’m simplifying and vulgarizing for a reason.
Because it occurred to me, while I was sitting in a discussion this afternoon of one of my graduate students’ dissertation chapters (on Thoreau’s conception of the self, and how it relates to both Arendt’s and Rousseau’s conceptions of the self), that I would love to know what Arendt would have made of Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Though Arendt has a fascinating discussion of Billy Budd in On Revolution, I don’t recall her ever talking about Benito Cereno. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think she ever wrote about—or perhaps even read—Benito Cereno.
If I’m right about Arendt’s non-engagement with Benito Cereno (I’m awaiting confirmation from various friends who are Arendt experts and know far more than I do), there might be an interesting reason for that. For Benito Cereno turns upside some of the basic theoretical architecture of On Revolution. It’s a story about a slave revolt on a ship. Babo, a black slave, and his fellow slaves seize control of a ship, captained by Benito Cereno, and kill a good portion of the crew and the slaves’ master. After drifting somewhere in the ocean for a matter of days or months (can’t remember now), the ship encounters another ship captained by Amaso Delano, a Yankee whaler or something like that. Babo organizes a massive deception: he and his comrades pretend that the white Spaniard Benito Cereno is still in control of the ship and that they, black Africans, are still slaves. They force Benito Cereno to play a role he has long since vacated, and they do the same. It is an ingenious plan, thought through (on the spot) to the last detail. They almost pull it off.
In Arendtian terms, there’s something slightly fantastic, if not impossible, about such a story. (And as Greg Grandin has taught us, Benito Cereno was in fact based on a true story, which was almost wilder than the fiction Melville constructed.) The moment the social question is put onto the public agenda, the moment the laborer with his body is pressed into the public square, the hunt for lies, the inquisition of private life, begins. All forms of representation and mediation become suspect; transparency and directness is all. (In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke made an even more incisive and terrifying version of the argument, seeing the poor Parisians’ capture of the royal family, and invasion of the Queen’s bedchambers, at Versailles, as the emblematic moment of the Revolution’s assault on all private space and its launch into violent tyranny.)
Yet here we have black slaves, in revolt, putting the social question of black bonded labor onto the public stage, in a very literal sense. They are performing slavery for an audience. (Performance is a big category for Arendt; it is the hallmark of a truly political form of action, one that is not concerned with social questions but rather with the glory of words and deeds.) They are engaged in deception and duplicity, crafting and presenting public personae that are diametrically opposed to their actual selves. Much like the Greeks did. That public presentation of self, for Arendt, is in part what it means to be political, and it’s precisely what’s not supposed to happen, not supposed to be able to happen, once the social question enters the public scene.
It seems to me that Benito Cereno presents a mother lode of raw material for Arendtian theory, waiting to be extracted. Or perhaps someone has already mined that vein?