This essay uses the political writings of Hannah Arendt to explore the virtue of courage. Courage is regarded as a risk taken in the pursuit or defense of some normative end. But what does political courage look like when, as an outgrowth of neoliberal optimism, our sense of the present and the risks it poses to our cherished normative aims is itself dilated? The answer that this essay proposes is that we must think of courage in its relationship to kairos (timeliness). Using Arendt's writings on the pariah tradition, this essay suggests three vectors of timely courage. These are keeping pace with political events as they unfold; withdrawing from political life to care concretely for others; and finally, developing a sensibility for the new through artistic creations that give insights into our shared future.
Succumb neither to the past nor the future. It is important to be completely present.—Karl Jaspers, quoted in epigraph to Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope issues an ethical challenge to rethink the role of virtues such as courage in times of narrowed horizons. Lear suggests that courage, rather than a martial quality, might “have to include the ability to live well with the risk of conceptual loss.”1 Only in this way can this virtue, tasked as it once was in the history of Western philosophy with the “power of preserving,” and integral to the reproduction of a martial ethos, become useful in helping us grapple with the loss of the institutions and practices that maintain our personal and political identities.
That such a conceptual shift in courage is necessary for Lear's primary subject of the book, the Crow nation, is clear enough. Lear writes that the end of communal life for the Crow also undoes the cultural coordinates that embeds individuals within shared expectations about the future.2 It made sense, therefore, when, with the disappearance of the buffalo on whose existence Crow life had depended, and with their forcible resettlement on reservations, it seemed to Crow Chief Plenty Coups that “the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”3 Given how central courage was to their understanding of themselves as a warrior society, the absence of it compromised the Crow's very ability to imaginatively inhabit a future altogether. In Lear's rendition, courage exists as a relationship to time.
The loss of a collective sense of the future, the challenges it presents to our ability to navigate the world, and how courage might again become a virtue appropriate to this political moment are the themes this essay explores. For Lear, “At a time of cultural devastation, the reality a courageous person has to face up to is that one has to face up to reality in new ways.”4 Courage for the Crow demands rethinking their relationship to the future. In a similar way, this essay tries to think of the virtue of courage as an orientation to a new reality, and to the past, present, and future in the context of the breakdown of democratic institutions. In order to make this case, I turn to the thought of Hannah Arendt to develop a kairology—a temporality—of courage.
Usually meaning “the right time or moment,” kairos has aesthetic, ethical, and political significance in a variety of Greek and Christian texts.5 In its original Greek formulation, kairos combines a martial assessment of the right moment for attack with the brief opening that appears before a weaver in the warp of a cloth. Departing from this martial connotation, this essay suggests that Arendt invites us to consider how different temporalities of the political demand different responses from us. Arendt helps gather/identify/discern (legein)—the root word of logos—these varieties of kairos. Whereas courage in some moments calls for precipitous intervention, other moments require elements of care or cautious judgment. The kairos of courage therefore is no longer just one moment as it is usually thought of in martial descriptions of courage. Kairos is itself split into a multiplicity because the moments where courage is called for unfold at different speeds. Using Arendt's writings, this essay suggests three kairotic “vectors” of timely courage. These are keeping pace with political events as they unfold; withdrawing from political life to care concretely for others; and finally, developing a sensibility for the new through artistic creations that give insights into our shared future.
That we might turn to Arendt for an account of the kairos of courage is both obvious and counterintuitive. Courage in Arendt's thought is an intensely central category, even though it is largely embodied by a precarious class, what she calls the “pariah tradition.” The formal aspects of Arendt's political theory suggest that the polis (political body), together with the full exercise of free speech (isegoria) and equality before the law (isonomia) are prerequisites for the citizen's courage. And yet, the characters who embody this virtue in her writings are often those prohibited from exercising such freedoms, or, at the very least, disadvantaged in ways that make their use of these freedoms remarkable. This tension between the free citizen who displays courage simply by leaving behind the realm of private concern, and the peripheral figures who risk everything by doing the same, suggests two implications for our understanding of Arendt's political thought.
The first implication is that the value of the Arendtian courage should be understood in its relation to the desertification of public spaces.6 Along with Bonnie Honig, Lear's insights have the added significance of helping us think through the loss of “public things” that orient our sense of our world. Shared resources and spaces—such as parks, museums, public squares—“gather people together, materially and symbolically, and in a relation to them diverse people may come to see and experience themselves . . . as common in relation to a commons.”7 The destruction of such spaces eviscerates shared political subjectivities, thereby atrophying our sense of political belonging. For us denizens of neoliberal societies, “nothing happen[s]” politically—that is, as an experience that is not individualized—because the shared sense of history and the future has already been undone through decades of divestment from the public good.
Lear's motivation in linking the experiences of the Crow to our own is to help us become comfortable around, and therefore not merely reactive to, the fact of our vulnerability to contemporary threats such as climate change and terrorism. Likewise, Arendt's historiographical method is that of a “pearl diver,” that is, someone who recovers lost gems from the detritus of history precisely because they reveal something valuable to us today. Understood in this historiographical mode, Arendt's courageous political actor may teach us how to adapt our traditional virtue of courage to the needs of an era in which the dismantling of public institutions and the forcible (indeed, violent) ejection from public spaces through aggressive policing practices threatens to unmoor us from the traditional arts of citizenship as they have been extolled by democratic theorists.
The second implication is that Arendtian courage is not straightforwardly a form of political virtù, understood in its Machiavellian sense of aggressively responding to alterations in fortune (fortuna), but also contains elements of interpersonal care.8 On one hand, the kind of reading I am offering here takes at face value Arendt's contention that courage “is the earliest of all political virtues, and even today is still one of the few cardinal virtues of politics,”9 and that it is “the political virtue par excellence.”10 On the other hand, by looking at the examples Arendt provides of courage (examples being, after all, key to the exercise of judgment), we find that the response of “pariah” figures to their present does not necessarily entail an active sense of virtù; sometimes even the quiet and slow regard for others is courage, especially in the face of a hard reality that makes “the hearts of . . . people [fall] to the ground.”
Refusing Optimism; Becoming Present
Arendt's wartime essay “We Refugees” starkly illustrates the need for a new relationship to a changing reality by documenting forms of dislocation that are not just physical; alongside the deprivation of the comforts of home and hearth comes the loss of a worldliness that ensconces actors in the familiarity of language, manners, habits, and relationships. Without these comforting rapports that make life livable, the refugee is reduced to the status of a nonperson unable to act or even to cope with the tragedies of a life now lived amongst strangers. Much like the experience of the Crow, living through exile undoes the future that refugees one day hope to inhabit.
In some of the most haunting passages in her oeuvre—and haunting precisely because of the matter-of-factness of her delivery—Arendt dryly notes that those refugees unable to cope with this new existence kill themselves. Whether suicide represents its own kind of courage or is a particularly vile species of cowardice is a theme long explored within philosophy. Arendt herself does not think much of the personal courage of these suicidees who, as she notes, constitute “no mad rebels who hurl defiance at life and the world, who try to kill in themselves the whole universe.”11 Instead, the refugees' suicide is a response to the incongruity between their present circumstances—which they are scarcely able to acknowledge, keen as they are to pass themselves off as “newcomers” or “immigrants” rather than as refugees—and their sense of “[entitlement] from their earliest childhood to a certain social standard.”12 Their suicide becomes an anti-political testament to their inability to reconcile themselves to the political reality that their Jewishness is the reason for their exile. This testament is anti-political insofar as those who commit suicide and who survive are, in their various ways, unable to stand up as Jews and as refugees, and therefore, as “the vanguard of their peoples.”13 To Arendt, those who remain are not necessarily heroic either. Having never reconciled themselves to the loss of their social identities, these survivors often turn to fortune tellers to assure them that the constellations in the sky and the lines on their palms disclose the shape of an as-yet unfulfilled future that will rescue them as individuals from their personal fates.
The hope that, as a member of an oppressed group, one might survive the doom of a shared destiny is understandable. In our neoliberal times, the idea of personal advancement at the expense of a shared political good is a familiar enough idea. Such hopes for personal salvation might explain, for example, the resistance to collective solutions to climate change, and the misbegotten hope that enough wealth might someday open the possibility of “opting-out” of this shared future. As Lauren Berlant explains, the neoliberal subjectivity is at once attached to the idea that a “good life” is possible—understood as containing not just objects but also rhythms of work and play, relationships, and status—but whose optimism for such attachments is continually dashed against the vagaries of capitalistic processes where one's position is more and more precarious, and where the objects to which we attach and which lend continuity to the public world are threatened everyday by the encroaching sphere of private interest.14 More significantly, the very “life-organizing status” of such attachments diminishes our capacity to even want to face our present or future in any way other than how it has hitherto presented itself to us.15
Bringing Arendt and Berlant together, we might hypothesize that the organizing powers of cruel attachments work by simultaneously dilating and segmenting the infinitude of time in order to defer the neoliberal subject's engagement with the present. These forces dilate political time by removing the sense of urgency attached to present crises, which are explained as merely incidental to the subject's reality. At the same time, they segment and narrow political time by affixing it to a predetermined endpoint where the political subject can resolve her personal crises. Such an expanded and focused horizon creates an optimism that sequesters the neoliberal subject from any understanding of the shared horizons within which her actions become possible. All that remains in its place is a “homogenous empty time” leading inexorably towards personal success, while the multiplicity of the kairos of political time disappears entirely.16
Arendt's repeated references to fortune-tellers in her writings during this period are, therefore, more than a curious sociological arcana. Her references to them unlock an important part of her critique of the effects of homelessness and dislocation. The task of the fortune-teller is to ease the anxieties of the refugee by pointing to a ready-made future that is just around the corner. In other words, by turning to the fortune-teller, the refugee seeks sureties about which paths lead to personal salvation. Correctly informed by the fortune-teller, the refugee's choices would be set aright on an unbroken time continuum that leads, inexorably, to her personal safety. In this way, the organizing power of attachments to assimilation sustain the parvenu's belief in her eventual acceptance, even when world-historical changes render such expectations utterly misplaced.
Drawing partially on Max Weber's comparative history of religions,17 Arendt divides the Jewish population in Europe into three categories: the parvenu, the pariah, and the conscious pariah. Each of these categories embodies, according to her, the historical dynamics of Jewish assimilation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Historically, Arendt's pariahs comprise those who have no hope of assimilation into mainstream society. The ranks of these pariahs are composed of poorer Eastern Jews (Ostjuden). In the absence of an opportunity to step into the “light” of public disclosure, the pariahs have learned to prefer the “warmth” of closer relationships.18 A second group is composed of parvenus who, because of their economic influence or cultural status, seek entry into the ranks of gentile society.19 More importantly, such access depends upon distancing oneself from one's poorer coreligionists by using either personal wealth or some—externally determined—“exceptional” quality as a distinguishing feature. Whereas the pariahs definitionally have no possibility of political participation, Arendt's cutting diagnostic assessments and her wartime rhetorical appeals are mostly directed towards the parvenu.
Politically, the consequence of an individualized temporal horizon is that it evacuates the present of any need for solidaristic political action. Arendt categorizes this way of thinking as emblematic of the parvenu who, since the eighteenth century, has been a model of assimilation for Jewish individuals. The parvenu's optimism is a key component in the continued depoliticization of the Jewish masses. The parvenu reveals that the antipode of courage is not the cowardice of one too afraid to act, but a seduction to the optimism of a future that demands neither intervention into political life nor solidarity. For a crisis that begins because of the group status of the oppressed classes (as Jews), finding new and ingenious ways of assimilating into the new reality does nothing to fundamentally transform the conditions from which this reality has arisen in the first place.
This is why Arendt's solution to the pitfalls of the parvenu and the banishment of pariahdom can only be found in the subterranean tradition exemplified by the figure of the conscious pariah. Arendt thinks that qualities ascribed to the underdog—qualities such as “humanity, humor, disinterested intelligence”—are all well represented in the conscious pariahs. For her, this means that the conscious pariahs are unwilling to give up their connections to Jews, regardless of their social status. As Arendt notes, the conscious pariahs do not “think it worthwhile to change their humane attitude and their natural insight into reality for the narrowness of caste spirit or the essential unreality of financial transactions.”20 By questioning the entire framework of assimilation, indeed, by revealing its utterly world-destructive attributes, the conscious pariahs display courage by “fac[ing] up to reality in new ways.”
Conscious pariahdom, for Arendt, unfolds on multiple scales of time. In this sense kairos not only stands at a remove from the “homogenous empty time” of individual salvation; it is itself expressed through different modalities of political involvement, each with its own pace. Arendt herself identifies not one model of conscious pariahdom, but several (listing figures as diverse as the German Jewish socialite Rahel Varnhagen, Heinrich Heine, Bernard Lazare, Franz Kafka, and Charlie Chaplin). As she shows through these essays, and in ways that we might recognize in our own time today, interventions in political life might well take the shape of moments of intensely concentrated, timely interventions; a background of care and network building that sustains the connectivity needed for solidaristic action; and the development of an imagination that can help give shape to an inchoate future by outlining its emergent properties. But all of these expressions of courage occur against an awareness of and in response to the rise of the unprecedented. The courage of these figures, therefore, must be read against this fact.
In this sense, the reading I offer here of the kairos of courage in Arendt's thought parallels core theoretical insights that inform interpretations of her work. Thoughtful interpreters such as Patchen Markell and Dana Villa highlight Arendt's emphasis on the nonsovereign character of political action in order to move past the language of control and mastery that has defined political thinking since Plato.21 At the same time, however, the theoretical lens of kairos is potentially antithetical to properly Arendtian concerns because to think of political action in terms of timeliness assumes that the “right time” for an action can be foreseen and therefore controlled.
Though powerful, this way of looking at the issue is not, to borrow a turn of phrase from Bernard Williams, “pressed upon me by the [con]text”22 of Arendt's writings. Just as the Crow learn to practice courage against a reality that has removed from them any possibility of mastery, similarly, in my interpretation, Arendt's refugee practices courage in facing up to their lack of sovereign control over their individual destinies. This way of approaching Arendt's political theory encourages us to expand her description of action in The Human Condition as “finding the right words at the right moment.”23 Rather than diminish political action by verticalizing the relationship between beginning (archein) and accomplishing (prattein), the contexts of Arendt's political thought instead broadens along three vectors the very nature of a political “moment.” In the first vector, courage refers to acting in the context of established circumstances and traditions. Here the correctness of an actor's “timing” might not consist in successfully accomplishing a role set in advance. Rather, to use a theatrical analogy, timeliness might involve keeping to the script when all others have departed from it. In other words, courage might involve intervening to set aright the pace of political events in a way that brings other actors back to the shared political script.
The second vector of courage, conversely, involves a disengagement with political action altogether. Faced with circumstances that compromise her moral standing, the courageous individual chooses to withdraw from political life. Courage under such circumstances responds to the demands of solidarity by refusing optimism and, in its stead, cultivating a desire to care concretely for others living under conditions of oppression.
The third vector of courage advances the most speculative sense of the term. Much like novel cases of legal judgment that were originally at the heart of the Greek conception of the term,24 here kairos refers to the ability to form a sensibility for the new. But because this form of judgment does not yet exist—there is, in a manner of speaking, no sensus communis that can capture the novelty of the times in which we are living—this sense of courage is aligned with, but not equivalent to, the interventions of the poet or the political theorist. These figures bring the disparate and disconnected together to help the reader grasp the political present. The, let us call it, poetic faculty, returns to our sense of time its shared futurity. In the following sections, I trace the courage to face the new along these three vectors by relying on Arendt's treatment of the conscious pariah.
The Courage of the “Now”
Bernard Lazare is Arendt's paradigmatic example of a political conscious pariah. Lazare was an advocate for Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer of the French General Staff who “was accused and convicted of espionage for Germany.”25 Although Dreyfus was eventually acquitted, it emerged that the entire affair had been an attempt by the French military to use the charge of a Jewish conspiracy as an excuse for overthrowing the French constitutional republic. As the legal advocate of the Dreyfus family and in his capacity as a journalist, Lazare hoped to influence public opinion on the Dreyfus affair while trying to organize a Jewish political movement within France. Indeed, as Annette Aronowicz notes, the Dreyfus affair became an issue of popular interest because it was Lazare who, at the very start of the proceedings against Captain Dreyfus, distributed his pamphlet “A Judicial Error” among “3,500 people well placed in public life in France.”26 A certain timeliness is, therefore, at the heart of Lazare's political interventions into public life.
Arendt mentions Lazare on only three occasions. First, in her essay on “The Jew as Pariah”; a year later, in the section on anti-Semitism in The Origins of Totalitarianism; and finally, in a preface she writes to Charles Péguy's portrait of Lazare. And yet, despite these brief appearances, most of which occur against the backdrop of her broader concern with the rise of political anti-Semitism, it might well be that it is not just the nature of his political work, but also the timeliness of his interventions that drew Arendt's interest. Consider the language with which she describes Lazare. According to her, “Lazare was the first Jew to perceive,” “he saw what was necessary,” “he puts his finger squarely on,”27 “in his heroic efforts . . . Lazare was to discover,”28 and most importantly, that “what made him different and what raised his writings above the mere expression of the spirit of his time and milieu was his early recognition of the importance of the Jewish question and his consistent courage in making this recognition the central fact of his life.”29 Although it is also tempting to read Arendt's comments on Lazare in light of her later emphasis on the faculty of judgment which, as she was to note, is “the most political of man's mental abilities,”30 I want to defer that interpretation. Here, in these early journalistic forays, Arendt puts a sharper emphasis on the temporal aspects of Lazare's achievements. They are timely not because they succeed, but because they occur in a moment when the received wisdom runs in an opposite direction, namely, towards a general consensus between both the French military's high command and respectable Jewish opinion regarding Dreyfus's guilt. Indeed, it might be the very timeliness of such achievements that attests to their courage.
Broadly speaking, Lazare's achievements occur, Arendt insists, not only against the backdrop of an era in which “common sense” is in favor of Jewish assimilation (and in favor of the corresponding suppression of poorer coreligionists), but also against one in which the “‘abstract ideas’ [such] as justice, liberty, and civic virtue” have become politically unfashionable and, indeed, dangerous.31 The rise of “extraparliamentary action” in the Third Republic meant that mob rule would very often undermine judicial procedures and threaten the lives of those who tried to bring miscarriages of justice to public notice. That actors such as Lazare—and Clemenceau and Zola—insisted on the “the stern Jacobin concept of the nation based upon human rights,”32 when these were threatened in the Dreyfus affair, is what makes their actions courageous.
Lazare's criticisms and interventions occurred against the backdrop of a world where constitutional verities were observed more in their breach than in their adherence. Meeting the opprobrium of both the anti-Dreyfusards and leading Jewish socialites, the Lazare of Arendt's interpretation invites us to see how “facing the new” involves extending the claims of political belonging to all French citizens regardless of their class status. Whereas the defenders of the French state applied republican values unevenly, and whereas the pariah and the parvenu, albeit in completely different ways, are unresponsive to the urgency of political action, the conscious pariah is a figure who either fights for the foundational principles that underwrite the political world or seeks to create new ways of belonging. This is an example of political virtù that distances itself from the received pieties of its age. The conscious pariah's courage teaches us that the struggle for political inclusion begins by claiming the political present rather than, as the pariah or the parvenu might want, through a hoped-for reconciliation with an as-yet-unrealized future.
In an era when a resurgent nationalism delegitimizes liberal constitutional norms and safeguards, the courage to speak out as Lazare did comes at considerable cost. Indeed, facing these risks, regardless of the consequences to the self, is an integral aspect of courage tout court.33 In a similar sense, the doxxing and harassment of journalists and political activists on social media, for instance, has a very real chilling effect on the kinds of positions thinkers and activists are likely to take. While press freedoms seem secure in many of the countries where right-wing movements have recently taken hold, the de facto reality is that journalists, academics, and activists face considerable threats to their safety. Courage in these moments might very well require the kind of timeliness that Lazare exemplified.
Let us take seriously, however, Lazare's tragic insight that most people most of the time refuse to become rebels. Those who are not compromised by the regimes under which they live exist in a space somewhere between outright rebellion and complicity. Their actions and inactions do not share the temporality of the polis or the constitutional republic. At the best of times, they adopt the posture of a guarded disengagement from public life, thereby rejecting the temporality of principled public action.
Although a traditional understanding might well deem such refusals to be political cowardice, it is helpful to remember that a refusal to acquiesce or to compromise oneself does not constitute a departure from political engagement. To say boldly and loudly that one refuses to commit the actions that are demanded of one by a criminal regime is a familiar form of courage. As Arendt notes in her lecture “Moral Responsibility under Totalitarian Dictatorship,” “in certain inhuman political situations it may be a sign of courage to admit impotence and to say: I don't want any part of this world, I shall not take my share and shall not participate.”34 Arendt's analysis refers here to the Socratic injunction that “it is better to suffer than to do wrong.”35 Given this choice, the courageous thing to do is to remove oneself from the world. This removal does not guarantee one's safety. As Arendt notes later in the lecture, luck will deliver only isolation; bad luck will “lead you into death.”36 And yet, these moments, even when suppressed, are part of the life of the polis. They can be recovered later as examples of conscientious objection or disobedience.
What I want to suggest is that the second vector of courage does not share in this temporality; the courage that unfolds responds to the crises of the present in new ways. The kairos of this courage arises in its regard for others. Although responsibility in such instances seemingly loses its specifically public character, that is, a concern with maintaining the world that arises between plural others which is, as Arendt once said, the “conditio per quam” of all political life,37 it does not evaporate. Instead, acting against the atomizing forces of optimism, concern for the world is instead transformed into a concrete responsibility towards others and towards the self.
Arendt elaborates the connection between this form of untimely cessation and courageous responsibility in her essay on Waldemar Gurian, a professor in exile at the University of Notre Dame and the founding editor of The Review of Politics. Gurian's work sharply criticized both political romanticism and the total politicization of life, and in his role as a Catholic thinker he sought to integrate various critiques of totalitarianism under the rubric of Thomism.38 Exiled from Germany to the United States, Gurian devoted himself to caring for refugees. In this simple act, Arendt sees an admixture of nonconformity, privacy, and courage that makes life in “dark times” responsive to the needs of others.
Recall the trap of optimism that captured most refugees. These actors forsook the uncertain realm of political activism in the mistaken hope that, given the right means, they could chance upon a ready-made future. The idea that this future is “ready-made” is not contingent but rather foundational to their view of the world. In The Human Condition, Arendt points out that in the guise of homo faber—the maker of things who sees everything as a means to an end—human beings are driven to dominate objects. The future, in this view, is also something to be dominated, or at least treated as we would an object. The future is arrived at not as an open possibility, but as an end that awaits consummation of our personal triumph or safety. The tools of astrology or palm-reading become means towards that end, as do any other human relationships that might be bent towards this goal. The tragedy of this approach, however, is not only that such sovereign pretensions are terribly misapplied in the case of pariahs, who do not have any real power in the first place.39 Rather, so long as human beings use this mechanism for approaching the political world, they cannot help but be treated as mere objects in another actor's designs.
It is in light of this broader assessment that we should approach the key feature of Gurian's personality that Arendt emphasizes in her portrait: his relationship to the world of things, and the effect this had on his conduct with other human beings. In contrast to the pretensions of homo faber, Gurian “refused to recognize in himself [the object's] potential fabricator and habitual ruler.”40 For Arendt, Gurian's unwillingness to desire sovereignty over objects allowed him his humanity. This humanity simply meant that he was never driven to “identify [himself] wholly with what [he] did.” As such, he remained “greater than anything done.”41 Gurian did not seek to shape the political scene. As Arendt notes, Gurian's “whole spiritual existence was built on the decision never to conform and never to escape, which is only another way of saying that it was built on courage.”42
The courage of political abstention can help actors resist the draw of expediency and, with it, the moral failures that so often allow the banality of evil to spread. For Arendt herself, the courage of political abstention is not a substitute for political action. In its more virtù-oriented guise, Arendtian courage is the ability to leave the safety of the four walls of the private realm and to risk exposure in the public arena. For Arendt, acts of abstention can still be courageous. But their political impact is limited to a narrow circle and, as seen in the broader focus of her political theory, such acts fail to generate political principles that others can adopt as their own. Finally, if the banality of evil is linked to the inability to think, then such courage is unable to move outwards to others who can similarly take up the mantle of thinking; the courageous acts of generosity, nonconformity, and untimeliness remain contained to personal relationships.
Arendt's more active sense of courage still emphasizes its more public face at the expense of those private relationships and networks that sustain communities that remain on the periphery of ordinary political life. This is unfortunate since such networks and acts of generosity may well sustain the conditions for a future public that would conform to the very values that Arendt cherished. Certainly, in teaching us to give up the means-end rationality of homo faber, and in the slowness with which they deepen, such relationships draw us into a kairos that unfolds over a longer duration. Perhaps it is this very slowness that diminishes this courage's appeal to the interpreters of an author who explicitly devoted herself to recovering the pearls of a lost tradition oriented around the freedom that comes through action.
And yet, the effect of Gurian's attitude towards politics was that it granted him a different freedom to show care and sensitivity towards his fellow men. It helped him see that “the dramatic reality of life and world as he saw it could never be complete, could not even begin to unfold itself, outside the company of the dispossessed and disinherited.”43 In other words, the sovereignty over the world of things and a corresponding sense of accomplishment can blind an actor to the reality of the world. Those individuals who had completely discarded their sense of responsibility to the world and to others had mistaken the things they had done or even the ideas they espoused as granting them the privilege of “[soaring] freely above their conditions and protections in an ecstasy of sovereignty.”44 In contrast to this presumed freedom, Gurian displayed awkwardness and embarrassment towards the world. This corporeal sense of embarrassment allowed him to remain attentive to how others too “are victims of circumstance,”45 and not always masters of their own destiny. As in his own relationship to the world of things where he displayed awkwardness, Gurian's human relationships were shorn of the mentality of homo faber by his sense of embarrassment. Although embarrassment might seem the very antipode of political virtù in its ableist and agonal guise, Gurian teaches us the important fact that political courage involves a consideration for others that can undo the organizing power of optimistic attachments.
A Courage Bridging the “No Longer and the Not Yet”
Returning to Lear's description of Crow courage as the ability to “face up to reality in new ways,” we might imagine another avenue for the kairos of political courage. This other type of courage exists between the “no longer” of an irrevocable past and a “not yet” that is still unformed, and whose outlines arise from the present. In Radical Hope, Lear sees this prophetic capacity in Plenty Coups's “dream-visions” that he has as a young man, and which infuse him with the radical hope necessary for the trying times ahead for his people. As Lear notes, these dreams are themselves manifestations of courage because they are “imaginatively tracking, responding to, and representing reality somehow.”46
It seems to me that understanding the kind of imagination necessary for “tracking, responding to, and representing” a reality that has not yet arisen might offer insight into a third type of courage: the courage to face the new. Admittedly, developing the argument in this way is at once the most speculative but, given that three of the four figures Arendt discusses in an essay explicitly devoted to the pariah tradition are artists, also the most firmly grounded in her thought. To wit: this third kairos of courage arises via the poetic faculty. To anticipate my own speculative argument: poetic innovation is courageous because (1) it risks exploding established aesthetic categories in order to diagnose the political present and anticipate the future, and (2) the poetic endeavor is not a sovereign act of mastery. Rather, artistic production in the Arendtian vein depends on the assessments of others and is fulfilled only through their interpretive contributions.
The paradigmatic figure for these aims in Arendt's writing is Franz Kafka. In an essay she wrote in 1944 to introduce Kafka to an American audience, Arendt highlighted the inherent genius of Kafka's writings, and what this might mean in terms of the ongoing war in Europe. Arendt invoked a statement from Kant's Critique of Judgment to illustrate the uniqueness of Kafka's style. She noted that while many nineteenth-century definitions of genius are entirely suspect, Kant's assessment might be apt. Genius, in Kant's reading, is “the innate mental disposition through which Nature gives the rule to Art.”47 In her description of Kafka's style, Arendt implicitly invokes the Kantian distinction between reproductive and productive imagination. According to Kant, the reproductive imagination merely combines extant concepts into unique forms and, therefore, is limited only to extending an existing concept. The ability to do this, Kant notes, is “actually only a talent (of the imagination).” The productive imagination is altogether different. For Kant, productive imagination in fine art extends our “ways of cognizing.” That is, a truly productive artistic creation provides both aesthetic pleasure and extends our ways of conceiving the world. In other words, fine art “makes reason think more.”48
Arendt accepted that Kant's definition has more salience to the production of art than many nineteenth-century definitions that emphasized the solitary genius of the artist. This is why, despite turning to Kant to highlight the aesthetic dimension of genius, Arendt immediately adds an amendment. For her, “Genius is, rather, the disposition through which Mankind gives the rules to art.”49 According to Arendt, Kafka's uniqueness lies in his ability to provoke the imagination of his readers and help them discern the outlines of a phenomenon that has not yet come to pass, namely the diminution of human dignity and freedom through the advent of totalitarianism.
Commenting on Kafka's parable “A Common Confusion,” Arendt notes that although his writings “seem at first like a wild and humorous exaggeration of actual happenings or like some inescapable logic gone wild,” what Kafka is really creating is “the model of confusion itself [such that] what remains . . . permits man to provide his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.”50 Notice the move Arendt makes here. Although it would seem as though Kafka is only exaggerating a common occurrence through the reproductive imagination, he is in fact expanding our way of thinking about our freedom by bringing to light the phenomenon of confusion itself. He does this not through experimentation with new styles but by “[stripping the German language] of its involved constructions until it became clear and simple, like everyday speech purified of slang and negligence.”51 If, as Arendt notes in her lectures, “it is the proper task of genius to make this [novelty] ‘generally communicable,’” then Kafka achieves this by letting language itself communicate the essence of “Mankind” without the semblance of painstaking effort.52 Arendt's primary innovation in presenting Kafka's genius is that, for her, Kafka's texts do not solely produce the fruits of a productive imagination. Rather, Kafka's genius is communicable; it engages his readers in an imaginative procedure as well.
In Arendt's reading, the power of Kafka's writings is in bringing the nascent experience of totalitarianism to light. As she notes elsewhere, it is as though Kafka “were or could have been at home only in a world which is ‘not yet.’”53 However, the fullest picture of this nascent phenomenon can emerge only from the multiple perspectives on his text that “Mankind” as a whole provides. To appreciate “Mankind”—Arendt's key amendment to Kant's definition of genius—is to acknowledge the importance of the political world. As is well known, for Arendt, politics is the only way through which we can embrace the fact of plurality. Mankind—that is, the plurality of ways in which human “Being” exists—becomes politically graspable in the aesthetic creations of genius. Why does Arendt insist on this?
Arendt compares Kafka's stories to blueprints of houses that have not yet been constructed. As she states, “Blueprints cannot be understood except by those who are willing and able to realize by their own imagination the intentions of architects and the future appearances of buildings.”54 Notice, however, that given the historical novelty of totalitarianism, there is no preexisting understanding of totalitarianism that can aid the process of reflection, apart from what the reader's imagination itself produces in response to Kafka's texts. This is why, and as Arendt points out, when readers discover the “hidden meaning” of Kafka's “strange and seemingly absurd images and descriptions,”55 they not only imagine new phenomenon, they also see how echoes of these phenomena (that have not yet come to pass) are echoes of their shared present. The strange is suddenly recognized as exceptionally familiar. Kafka's texts, therefore, are able both to invoke the past and present, and to summon the future, provided that the “contents” of the past and the future are understood not as objects that can be given to cognition (that is, be made to appear), but rather as things that are amenable to understanding. In other words, in Kafka's texts the imagination and understanding work together to produce narratives that help us grasp phenomena for which no prior experience is adequate.
Arendt's writings on Kafka may point to a prophetic power latent in poetry. But this is not the only avenue where such power arises. Indeed, theory itself—especially in the hands of an author so explicitly committed to thinking through the implication of “what we are doing”56—performs this work of “imaginatively tracking, responding to, and representing reality.” That such an act requires courage is not only evident in the fact that, since genius produces new rules for art, its products often contain “deformities,” and therefore the presence of a “courage,” “a certain boldness of expression, and in general some deviation from the common rule [that is] entirely fitting for a genius.”57 More significantly, like the poet who bears the hatred of his fellow men, it is the task of the theorist to give shape to the inchoate future even if such an act draws the ire of others. After all, like Arendt's refugee, the poet or the theorist may well be a “messenger of ill tidings.”58
Here we might recall Michel Foucault's insight that the breakdown of the parrhesiastic game (that is, the agreement that displays of frank speech would be acknowledged and protected even by those who are its targets) transformed the democratic function of frank speech into a private ethics of care. For example, the Socrates of the Apology understands that the public face of courage poses too high a risk for his parrhesia to perform any beneficial function.59 Unlike the philosopher who abjures the democratic realm for a private ethics, however, the theorist's courage actively courts the opinion of others. Indeed, when in the process of asking her readers to distance themselves from the routinized aphasia of bureaucratese, or from the unresolved mourning of a global catastrophe, Arendt was castigated for displaying no love for particular peoples; she displayed courage by not withdrawing into the private realm. Instead, Arendt tried to bring to those uprooted by these catastrophes the reason for the changes in their fortune. By bridging the gap between the “no longer” that still lives on in the ways we relate to the world and organize our lives, and a courageous commitment to thinking through the implications of where its ongoing influence is pushing us, the theorist—like the poet—draws us into reflecting on the kairos of the “not yet.”
Arendt's account of politics is an invitation to partake of the political kairos. To adopt Foucault's description of the program of critical modernity undertaken by Kant, we might say courage comprises a “sagittal . . . relationship of the discourse to its own present reality.”60 In Arendt's formulation, the virtue of courage must exist as a critical rejoinder to the present. We must act from within this reality by first learning to face up to it. Arendt's own status as a political actor during and after the Second World War helps highlight the degree to which “the fierce urgency of now”—to borrow Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrasing—animates her political thought.
As I have been calling them here, the seductions of optimism dilate and segment the political “now.” In “dark times,” the very situation from which Arendt wrote her most trenchant criticisms of European modernity, or in which the “hearts of . . . people fell to the ground,” such seductions are experienced as atomizing forces that disperse the sensibility for a shared political present. With a change in orientation from a solidaristic to an individual frame, courage develops into a narrower capacity for individualized risk assessment. The tragedy of this whole affair is that the tools for grappling with these risks also undermine the very world upon which such feelings of safety depend.
Courage requires the cultivation of a certain kind of timely untimeliness. In this essay, I have suggested three such avenues. The first is the willingness to risk the rejection of others by intervening in the political present. This political present is embedded in the temporality of the polis and constitutional republic. In the theatrical terms I employed earlier, courage means sticking to the constitutional script when others have abandoned it. The second such avenue is an abstention from political life and its temporality. Rather than courting an anti-political anti-worldliness, the willingness to abjure the attachments of sovereign control and, in their stead, seek to care for others constitutes its own form of untimely courage. The third avenue suggests that artistic creation of the kind that seeks to uncover the political reality of the present, and the future trajectories that develop from it, require the courage both to risk artistic exploration and to court the disapproval of others.
I would like to thank a number of people who helped me distill the main lines of argument in this essay. Aida Hozic first encouraged me to think about the place of courage in Arendt's thought. Evgenia Ilieva, Dietmar Schirmer, Leslie Thiele, Eric Kligerman, Cheryl Hall, Lorna Bracewell, Daniel O'Neill, and Myriam Fotou provided, by turn, commentary, encouragement, and criticisms that helped sharpen this essay. I am grateful to the editorial team at Critical Times for their guidance, the anonymous reviewers for their recommendations, and Jessica Ling for the thoughtful suggestions.
In this sense, Mary Dietz is certainly right when she says that the figurations around the concept of action in The Human Condition escape the gendered binaries of feminine (animal laborans) and masculine (homo faber). See Dietz, Turning Operations.
Lazare and Péguy, Job's Dungheap, 6; emphasis added.
Michel Foucault explicitly identifies the operation of parrhesia with an opening up of risk; that is, of offending the target of the parrhesiast's words (Courage of Truth, 11).
Troubling though my interpretation might seem, this is Arendt's own assessment. Consider her remark “that in this mad world it is much easier to be accepted as a ‘great man’ than as a human being.” Arendt notes that the illusions of past grandeur become both understandable and laughable when articulated through someone whose political claims as a human being are denied by states (i.e., the refugee). In “We Refugees,” this posture takes its most comic-tragic turn when Arendt recalls the “young man who, when expected to accept a certain kind of work, sighed out, ‘You don't know to whom you speak; I was Section-manager in Karstadt's [a great department store in Berlin]’” (Jewish Writings, 269–70).