- The Ends of Arendtian Politics: A Review of Hannah Arendt, and: Speaking Through the Mask: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Social Identity, and: Our Sense of the Real: Aesthetic Experience and Arendtian Politics
It is a testimony to Hannah Arendt's originality and genius that three books devoted to her thought could come out in the past few years that point in such promising and yet different directions. The books reviewed here share a somewhat continental, phenomenological, and feminist orientation. All see Arendt as a deeply responsible and responsive thinker who looked for ways in which judgment can be used toward a transformative politics. None rehearse at any length the criticisms that many feminists have laid at Arendt's feet, amply documented and discussed in the volume edited by Bonnie Honig, Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt (1995), for Pennsylvania State University's Re-Reading the Canon series. Instead they try to move beyond these controversies to show ways that Arendt's thought is morally and politically powerful.
Of the three, Julia Kristeva's Hannah Arendt (2001) is the most devoted to Arendt herself. It is the first volume of Kristeva's trilogy, Female Genius: Life, Madness, Words—Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein, Colette. The first two volumes on Arendt (1999) and Klein (2000) are now translated into English; the third on Colette has yet to be published. Kristeva's genre in these texts, despite the trilogy's title, is not so much that of intellectual biography as of an overview of the major themes in her subjects' works. The Arendt volume comprise three long chapters: "Life as a Narrative," "Superfluous Humanity," and "Thinking, Willing, and Judging," each covering a chronological span of Arendt's writings.
Oddly, considering that they have been written by an author who is such a powerful philosopher in her own right, these pages contain only the most subtle traces of the Kristeva's own themes. Especially in the first two chapters, reading [End Page 221] Kristeva on Arendt is like reading Arendt at a mere step's remove. Most of the passages seem to paraphrase Arendt. But in the remove of this one step the careful reader can find Kristeva's mark. For example, after a long and faithful reading of the Aristotelian aspects in Arendt's The Human Condition (1958), Kristeva notes a few areas in which the reader might "regret" certain failures (Kristeva 2001, 92-93)—failures that Kristeva's own philosophy has amply addressed. In reading these "regrets," briefly laid out in just two paragraphs, the reader's appetite is whetted: Yes, what will Kristeva have to say about why Arendt ought to see that poetic language bridges minds and bodies? What can we do with Arendt's theory when we bend it around questions of narrative, style, and rebellion? But Kristeva immediately lets Arendt off the hook, for none of these issues is "what really interests Arendt" (2001, 93). Surprisingly, for a thinker of her stature, Kristeva is much more interested in telling the story of Arendt's thought than in using Arendt as a medium for deploying her own theory.
Still, an attentive reader will find glimpses of how Kristeva's theory refracts through an Arendtian lens—and vice versa. Such moments occur toward the end of Chapter Two and the beginning of Chapter Three, when Kristeva points out Arendt's neglect of the body, her disparagement of the social (in contrast to the political), and "her lack of attention to psychic life and intimacy" (2001, 162). "Preoccupied by her project concerning political freedom and by her ancient Greek models," Kristeva writes, "the political theorist managed to neglect the plural and possible economies of prepolitical freedom that disclose 'the social' and that are precisely what interest us today" (2001, 162). Kristeva's major lament...