Hannah Arendt: reflections on ruin

Autumn 2010

This essay seeks to account for the sources and consequences of Arendt’s conception of ruin as the ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ character of human affairs - a view she expressed most famously in The Human Condition and perhaps most powerfully in her reflections on the work of Franz Kafka. Beginning with an analysis of Heidegger’s use of the term ‘ruination’ in his early Marburg lectures, the essay shows how Arendt absorbs Heidegger’s insight while completely altering its critical function. As a German Jew, Arendt was acutely aware of the temptations and dangers of the cult of Bildung (culture, self-development), especially as a result of her intense engagement with Rachel Varnhagen, who saw in Bildung a way out of her impossible socio-political position. For Arendt, who follows Kafka in this regard, any process that operates on its own, including that of Bildung, tends toward ruin, and she understood her work, in large part, as an uncovering of the counter-movement to ruination in the form of action. The essay concludes by showing the degree to which Arendt’s reflections on ruin underlie her analysis of Eichmann’s crimes and considers the ways in which her critical engagement with Kafka prepared her for her ‘report’ on his trial.

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