Liberating pleasure: unlearning

June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Let me make a proposition, a perhaps unpopular one. Instead of using suicide as the measure of freedom — the idea that one always has the choice of death even over a seemingly involuntary act — we should use one’s ability to unlearn [the capacity to see anew, study again, reassess]. Verlernen is not vergessen.

With this year’s translation of Maire Luise Knott’s 2011 Unlearning with Hannah Arendt, we at last see the penetration of this concept into the English. To understand it better, let us follow Knott as she creeps in the shadow of Arendt through four “re-actions to the shock of what is purely factual”.


Spontaneous laughter is a reaction that bypasses reason & can potentially give momentum to freedom & sovereignty in the midst of the constraints of this world & all its buttoned-up conventions.

A sense for the comic can be uncovered in all serious thinkers, from Socrates to Hegel & beyond. By this I mean that they share in the ability to transgress what is considered serious in their time, therewith reconstitute the most significant human values. Likewise, “Arendt’s laughter had loosened a moral fabric that theologians, philosophers, & scholars had woven all too tightly. They were unprepared for the phenomenon of motiveless mass murder & had nothing to say about it. Laughter had been recognised as an intellectual event”.

The particular event in mind is Arendt’s laughter at Otto Adolf Eichmann’s answers on trial [for crimes against humanity, war crimes, membership in a criminal organisation, & 12 other charges] & the 3,500 pages of interrogation transcripts. The consequences of her laughter helped secure her celebrity.

Among the rebuttals was an aesthetic one: that Arendt wanted to shock the public & be discussed herself, an insensitive detraction of a notable step towards justice for the greatest horror in European history. This accusation shows a failure to register Arendt’s experience. “Eichmann […] corresponded to none of her expectations. He confused her, & she allowed herself to be confused”, rather than remain on the defence of her intelligence.* What she saw, in this open space of confusion, was someone abandoned to duty [what he decided to be his fate & the fate of bio-history] rather than absolute evil. Eichmann decided only not to think for himself, & we live in a world that allowed him unthinkable power. There is something funny about that, no?


The commonly accepted idea of an “original text” does not apply to Arendt’s writings. Her “original texts” — that is, the English versions of her major works — are always already translations.

A war exile, first in France then the USA, Arendt kept her bearings through her undying affinity with the German language [kept alive in the Denktagebuche, her journal, & in her home]. “Her style, full of explicit & implicit quotations & images through which other voices & views invade & interrupt her own observations, caused difficulties when it came to transporting her thoughts into a new linguistic realm”. Translation became the finicky work of asserting one’s positions in the various modes of thinking offered by each tongue — Arendt knew French, Latin, & Greek, as well as her pen languages. While many contemporary linguists were asserting that language inducted with it a mode of thinking, Arendt [endorsing the trend] wanted to break from the restrictions of such nationalised/racialised thought.

A more interesting point Knott raises is that poetic language itself, especially through metaphor but also by alienating words from regular usage, can bring new insights into the construction of knowledge, culture, & language; the conclusion drawn is that all three fields suffer “contamination”. Rather than dismissing it as being in vain, Arendt is inspired by the potential to invert this “contamination” into an estranging tool that could open thought once more. “Poetic metaphor is itself a translation & a celebration of contamination”.


The ability to forgive & the ability to promise are the human characteristics that guarantee our freedom from being ruled by the past or the future.

It would be wrong to say that Arendt forgave Eichmann by diminishing the estimation of his antisemitism & involvement in the planning of executions; by this act, rather, she took back some of his might, leaving him for dead to absurdity. “Forgiveness is a sort of political covenant that robs a wrong of its future effectiveness without forgetting it” — not so much a changing of history as it is accepting a new reading of it. Again, we see the by-now familiar formula that requires the possibility to think otherwise, the only guarantee against future totalitarian states.

In last week’s post, we observed Arendt confront “movements” — fixated on a future direction, resulting in a teleological code of ethics that excuses next to everything & punishes by convenience.** With forgiveness, the reverse direction is in question. We are asked not to trust those unable to forgive: it is a lesson against revenge. The proposed alternative, already in wide use, is “the council” — a space for political mediation where exoneration is an agreement to repair past mistakes.


Not in existence but only in having really existed do we interrupt the linear course of time & strike from existence the sparks of the moment.

Knott playfully uses this chapter to discuss Arendt’s innovative manipulation of quotations, “seldom used as documentation. Instead, they create a multilayered & polyphonic plurality”, in this way rehearsing the processes of a mind in conversation with itself. [Certainly, many of the most fruitful conversations are to be had with books after all.] Words of these other thinkers are not wholly theirs in citations [they are necessarily misused, decontextualized] but a face “tried on” by the one quoting; “we usually assume that a mask hides the real self, but for Arendt, the mask is the form in which the self can express itself”.

Perhaps wishfully, it is suggested that this technique incites in readers the will to take part in discussion themselves. “Through their own associations, readers become her associates”. Her works are pieces for meditation, thus their wonderful rereadability argues Knott. Arendt is no writer of historic “fact” or positivistic philosophy. This too battles totalitarian intellectualism which must remain strictly didactic — learning & not unlearning.


* Knott does well to mention that it could be Arendt was taken in by a performance of Eichmann’s: Arendt studied his words, after all, & these told the story of a pawn.

** “The new cause, the right cause, she continued, had a totalitarian catch to it. By turning democracy into a cause, something that would arrive in the future & to which the present must be devoted, the present became unfree”.


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