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On Arendt and Ambivalence

By Srutokirti Basak and Katherine Franco

Hannah Arendt professed ‘no claim nor ambition to be a “philosopher”’ – let alone what Kant called a ‘professional thinker’ – in the opening paragraphs of her posthumous The Life of the Mind. This scepticism for intellectual and categorical certainty unites the work of Arendt and contemporary critic Jacqueline Rose. Ambivalence is not a deficiency but an appeal to the uncertainties of the mind. Most of all, it situates us in the act, or flight, of thought rather than where we might land afterwards.

Our conversation with Rose one evening in May did not set out to define the Arendtian tradition of thought, or Rose’s place within this tradition, or to achieve any quite so precise or neat a trajectory. We did not seek a genealogy or theoretical framework. But as we shifted from discussion of Bolsonaro’s fascist certainties, to the crisis of transphobia in the UK, to the liberating capacity of art by the likes of Eimear McBride or Yael Bartana, we always returned to Arendt.

Rose maintains a commitment to uncertainty throughout her work. ‘I think the other side of your question of ambivalence in politics is the question of thinking and thought,’ Rose told us. Paying homage to Arendt’s famous On Violence, Rose’s On Violence and On Violence Against Women (2021) revisits Arendt in twenty-first-century instances of sexual violence. Like Arendt, Rose means to make no authoritative claims to the label of ‘philosophy’, but nevertheless begins her book with Arendt’s dictum to do ‘nothing more than to think what we are doing’.

‘True thought’, Rose writes in a pivotal chapter, ‘Feminism and the Abomination of Violence’, ‘is a form of memory which exerts no dominion, ousts no one from their own space, because it remembers that it is or once was radically homeless’. The memory of radical homelessness guides Rose’s work on South Africa, the US-Mexican border and Israel-Palestine.

What would it mean to maintain and locate thought that was once radically homeless? What would it mean to think in a way that claims no dominion, that ousts no one from their own space? What is thought, and a consequent politics, that does not yield to nationalist and fascist dominion? In attending to space and statelessness, Rose links thought to a more general question of the public sphere and borders. ‘The question of ambivalence allows you to stay with the uncertainties of being a human subject.’

Rose, who Edward Said said ‘has no peers among critics of her generation’, is most acclaimed for her work on feminism and psychoanalysis. Rose perhaps derives her critical strength from the extent to which her psychoanalytic and feminist commitments inform her broad range of research interests. Her Why War? Psychoanalysis, Politics, and the Return to Melanie Klein (1993) historicises the relationship between war and psychoanalysis – or rather theorises the way in which war functions as ‘a brake on knowledge’. Women in Dark Times (2014) offers an untraditional account of feminism through the lives of Rosa Luxemburg, Charlotte Salomon and Marilyn Monroe. Mothers (2018) attends to the often neglected, and certainly controversial, uncertainty at the heart of motherhood. Mothers, in how it conceptualises natality and thus mortality, is an Arendtian project by nature. Arendt, after all, ‘makes natality and mortality the correctives to false assertions of not just knowledge but also power’, Rose explained to us.

Rose’s most recent release, On Violence, calls for a reckoning with trans rights, domestic violence and South African collective memory. Published amidst the pandemic, as we witnessed rising cases of domestic abuse and the fatal consequences of government thoughtlessness, the book asserts the importance of thought in the face of what Arendt calls ‘the impotence of bigness’.

For Rose, psychoanalysis might be defined as ‘the moment when the philosophical thought can only be made through a type of poiesis’. At the centre of psychoanalysis is the recovery of the unconscious through the articulation of thought, coherent or otherwise. Rose argues in an article titled ‘To Die One’s Own Death’, that psychoanalysis presents a ‘unique domain’ for ‘the complex reckoning with life and with death’. By occupying the Arendtian position that we ‘think what we are doing’, psychoanalytic theory demands consciousness when one’s psyche is most prone to recede into itself – in the face of trauma, grief, or violence. Psychoanalysis insists on thought in the face of pain, as an antidote to ‘the fantasy that the world is there to be mastered’, as Rose writes in On Violence. For Rose, ‘Hannah Arendt was a psychoanalytic thinker despite herself’. Hence Rose’s extensive citation of Arendt in her psychoanalytic arguments in On Violence and The Question of Zion is not only an acknowledgment of her intellectual debt but an invitation for an alternative reading.

Rose places Arendt within the psychoanalytic tradition by demonstrating her common ground with Sigmund Freud. In ‘To Die One’s Own Death’, Rose writes that psychoanalysis begins with ‘the recognition that the world – or what Freud sometimes referred to as “civilisation” – makes demands on human subjects that are too much to bear’. Rose’s chapter ‘Feminism and the Abomination of Violence’ in On Violence highlights Arendt’s similar suggestion that ‘there is something about the process of human thought that is often insufferable.’ By drawing upon their mutual understanding of the demands that thought can enact upon human subjectivity, Rose initiates a dialogue between Freud and Arendt that is tremendously generative.

The dialogic relationship between psychoanalysis and Arendt plays out crucially in Rose’s exploration of Zionism. Arendt’s pronouncement that early Zionists ‘escaped to Palestine as one might wish to escape to the moon’ is reminiscent of the birth of psychoanalysis on the foundations of ‘a mind in flight.’ In taking a psychoanalytic approach to the question of Israel-Palestine, Rose charts these ‘fantasmic dimensions’ underlying national identity to reveal a mutable, fraught subject. In The Question of Zion, Rose highlights that ‘[P]recisely because Zionism had to make itself out of nothing … it knows itself as a child of the psyche, a dream, a figment of the brain’. Rose’s point here is not simply to expose the fictive foundations of nationalist movements, but rather to historicise psychoanalysis and Zionism as ‘companions in spirit’ which are nevertheless ‘diametrically opposed.’ Psychoanalysis, according to Rose, aims ‘to trouble the grounds of identity, to release you into a certain kind of psychic freedom, of not feeling like you have to know who you are or that your origins have to be pure to make your historical and political claim.’ Zionism, alternatively, ‘is only interested in, for understandable reasons, finding the place and holding onto it, or knowing who you are through your lineage and your ancestry’.

The historic existence of a global Jewish diaspora holds philosophical potential for Freud, Arendt, and Rose. Jewish diasporic experience, in other words, is an ambivalent source of knowledge. When Rose writes that ‘a science claiming the status of absolute truth can only be a dictator in its own home’, she speaks in metaphors of home and homelessness. True thought demands to be un-homed over and over again. In On Violence, Rose alludes to Anna Burns’s Milkman, a novel whose protagonist is ‘uncertained’; likewise, sexual and national identity are ‘uncertained’ and unhomed in Rose’s work. In The Question of Zion, Rose makes the case that one of the blindspots of Zionism and Israeli nationalism is the neglect of their once-radical homelessness. ‘Israel inscribes in its heart the very version of nationhood from which the Jewish people had had to flee’. In other words, a version of nationhood which foregoes thought, exerts dominion, and forgets its historical ambivalence.

It is in the depths of human thought that Rose connects Arendt to another psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein. ‘[V]iolence against women is the boy’s deepest wish and worst fantasy,’ Rose writes, citing a Kleinian case study. ‘But if he knows this, can give it thought, then it becomes a fantasy he is less likely to act upon.’ This formulation is crucial to understanding the role that thought plays in Rose’s politics. When she draws upon Arendt’s call to ‘think what we are doing’, she reminds us that thinking should not be ex post facto, but simultaneous to the act. Here, action is contingent upon thinking and unsure of its ground, so that one can choose not to do what one might otherwise have done. None of this work, she would insist, distracts for one moment from the need for political engagement in which the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious and its tracking of group identities has a key role to play. Rose takes her reference from writers like Rosa Luxemburg and Simone Weil for whom revolution and justice drew on the limits of their innermost psychic worlds.

As an analyst, Rose is at her best while proposing a course of treatment – or, at the very least, an approach – through which we might overcome our temptations towards violence. She ends her introduction to On Violence thus: ‘[I]f we do not make time for thought, which must include the equivocations of our inner lives, we will do nothing to end violence in the world, while we will surely be doing violence to ourselves.’ It is only by thinking about the worlds we inhabit, interior and exterior – an active endeavour more likely to generate uncertainty than certainty – that one can ‘reach out across the world to everyone … to all those who are also suffering, whether from war or pandemic, or, like everyone else, from the fact of being human’.

Transphobia and domestic violence emerge from fear of uncertainty and mutability of sexual identity – or rather, the uncertainty of identity one must confront through introspection. In our interview, Rose recalled the second-wave feminist movements of the 1960s and ’70s, ‘when to talk about the ambivalence of being a woman and the uncertainty and precocity of it was seen by some as immensely enabling because it allowed you to hesitate and pause at the identities that were being foisted on you’. It is this precise pause that lies at the heart of both Rose’s and Arendt’s lifework. The pause of thought, or what Arendt understood as the radical quiet of contemplation, is frightening for its very potential to destabilise the certainty of identity.

‘Can you be devoted to an identity – or would you be differently devoted to your identity – if you knew it was also unsure?’ Rose asks in The Question of Zion. Historian Susan Stryker provides a version of this differing devotion to identity in her famous 1994 essay, ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix’: ‘You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic Womb has birthed us both’. Rose’s advocacy for the trans community rests on her understanding of the uncertainty of identity. ‘The fight for the rights and political recognition of trans people is one of the most complex, difficult and painful issues of our time’, Rose said, ‘and I think one has to start by saying this’. Yet the uncertainty of sexual identity is a no-brainer for Rose. ‘If you think psychoanalytically, no one’s ever just cis’, Rose said. ‘You have to keep your mind as open as possible.’

Thought, as Arendt defines it in The Life of the Mind (or what Rose calls her most psychoanalytically-inclined work), is ‘the quiet in the centre of a storm which, though totally unlike the storm, still belongs to it’. Rose’s work reflects this commitment, vacillating and remaining uncertain in the face of fascist and nationalist assertions. ‘You go out on the street and you demonstrate, and then you go into your groups or you go into your therapy, and you think about the complexity of who you are’, Rose suggested. ‘You have to do both, ideally at the same time’. This demand nods to the epigraph to the late philosopher Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work: ‘Keep your mind in hell, and despair not’. It is a call to remember that ‘even the harmonious mind bears the scars of its former struggles’, as Rose writes in The Question of Zion. Rose’s work steps inside the storm and welcomes us along with it. It shows, as Rose said in the last moments of our conversation, that ‘lack of certainty is a gift’.

SRUTOKIRTI BASAK reads History at Mansfield College. She looks forward to reading something else this summer.

KATHERINE FRANCO reads for an MSt in English at Mansfield College. She is working towards a theory towards a theory.

Art by Izzy Fergusson


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