Reflections on Existential Preliminaries to a Resistant Polity in Literature and Beyond

Reflections on Existential Preliminaries to a Resistant Polity in Literature and Beyond

In Berlin, writer and philosopher Fred Dewey created a functioning polity of literature by inviting small groups of strangers to meet, discuss, and read out loud from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition.

“The Portable Polis” was a group of strangers convened by writer Fred Dewey to read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition out loud to one another over the course of a summer in Berlin. Meeting at locations around the city (chosen by Dewey for their relevance to Arendt’s insights into politics and statelessness), the group of ten to twenty, varying in size from week to week, read and argued, producing, as Dewey puts it, “a kind of objectivity, reality, and personal solidarity…born not of concepts, uniformity, or issues, but from our differences.” Dewey often works as a kind of midwife to the “agora,” birthing encounters—always temporary, contentious, and public—where people who can’t find politics elsewhere, together construct it in groups. Arendt’s texts often form the focus. “When read out loud in a group,” Dewey writes, “and led by someone willing to probe and push and demand, the style and nature of Arendt’s writing reveals that inherent plurality on which thinking, rights, and every polity must rest.” Dewey’s projects conjoin two human potentials that Arendt saw as radically divergent: “politics” (always collective, noisy, and contentious); and “poetic thinking” (which is private and inward, as healing and reparative as politics is rupturous). Dewey keeps these potentials active—together—by borrowing familiar cultural frames (the seminar, the poetry series, the reading group) and filling them with his unvetted, conflicted public of idiosyncratic readers. The stability and durability of the text grounds the dynamic, unpredictable work of politics, constructing an agora in which everyone can speak and even the poets can be heard. This is his account of that work, seen as “existential preliminaries to a resistant polity in literature and beyond.”

The harm we suffer when thoughtlessness and rightlessness converge was first pinpointed by Hannah Arendt in her observations of Adolf Eichmann, organizer of the transport of Jews to their deaths in the holocaust. Eichmann had been brought to trial in Jerusalem, kidnapped by Israelis from his hiding place under disguise in South America. Arendt, observing him in the Jerusalem courtroom for the New Yorker, had dedicated earlier work to addressing rightlessness and statelessness. But for the first time this thing she called “thoughtlessness” was in plain sight. She did not position the convergence between thoughtlessness and rightlessness as a general warning about modernity, but as something that lay within it like a time bomb.

The principle Arendt derived from her courtroom observations, as more of an afterthought—for Arendt, every thought is an afterthought to events and matters—comes in the phrase she coined then, “the banality of evil.” Arendt realized the inability or the refusal to think was the heart of the matter. Eichmann was its exemplar. The convergence she found lay there in the gruesome fate promised by Nazi corpse factories, with the plight of endless stateless persons and refugees a prelude to massacre and suicide.

Drawing of Hannah Arendt. The smoke coming from her cigarette reads, "The right to have rights."

Arendt had observed, nearly alone to this day, the terrible training acquired by those whose daily work was to manage this growing body of stateless and rightless persons. As far as I know, she was among the first and only people to emphasize that this training taught ordinary humans to become a degraded type ideal for totalitarian ends. In the example of Eichmann, she found a distinctly modern superficiality, and within that, a destruction of the plurality central to the human condition, one able to defy every word and thought. All Eichmann could utter were slogans and clichés, turning even his own thoughts into cliché. She understood such a person’s inevitable subjects would be—and were—the stateless, those robbed of the “right to have rights.” A profound destruction of politics, as she saw that word, stood revealed. It wasn’t only about the Nazis or the holocaust. As she said in The Origins of Totalitarianism (originally titled, more properly, The Burden of Our Time): “Only the loss of a polity itself expels [man] from humanity.”

Socrates called every day for a heightened awakeness from those in the “polis,” in their “polity,” making person after person stop and think, one at a time. This was not to form abstract, general concepts, nor to disrupt community, nor to challenge the gods, but simply to be truly alive in the world as it is—and to ourselves as we unavoidably are, being with others.

By now, sixty years on, thoughtlessness, expulsions, and the loss of polities has spread like a plague. Automatic processes seem in charge, while the “stop and think” Arendt called for repeatedly has not been anywhere near able to keep up. Thoughtlessness and rightlessness converge across our lives, between us not only in the present, but between us and those in the past and those who might yet be in the future, should we have one. Finding one’s own distinct and unique course, and bringing it together with unique others, all protected, has become hard in the face of forces coming at us from every direction. The marvelous way Arendt called our plurality inherent—while insisting that only persons coming together in their uniqueness could be the root of objectivity and reality—has nearly vanished from contemporary concerns. More and more of us live uprooted lives, shorn of any located polity that could ground objectivity, reality, plurality, and rights—that is, sites where thinking and being by each of us has the space and time to endure, to resist, and to challenge.

The explicit necessity of examining our lives and being brought to account, together, was pointed to first, as far as we know, by an ancient Greek itinerant nag, roaming the ancient Athenian agora. If it’s possible to set aside his chronicler, Plato, to look through the eyes of Socrates (as well as the maxim he’s known for—”the unexamined life is not worth living”), one might conclude Plato rather unmoored the point of Socrates’s enterprise. It was not a question of giving up life at all, nor, as Plato took it, of developing “universal concepts.” Further, this rather ugly fellow challenging all comers, according to the few ancient sources we do have, did not necessarily aim to sacrifice his life nor the “polis” to the mob. One thing we do know: Socrates called every day for a heightened awakeness from those in the “polis,” in their “polity,” making person after person stop and think, one at a time. This was not to form abstract, general concepts, nor to disrupt community, nor to challenge the gods, but simply to be truly alive in the world as it is—and to ourselves as we unavoidably are, being with others. Through this, we could come to comprehend what thinking and being might be. Socrates, it turns out for Arendt, showed us thinking as a precursor to “the right to have rights.” What mattered was the thinking importance of each and every person—not just protected in and by the public life of a city, but in the life of minds that make up any civic body. In this, each person has something vital to contribute and to learn, if given the time and space to engage fundamental questions.

How might we pursue such a thing today, and what sort of work could that be? Is it even possible when current conditions seem so aligned, yet again, to enforce rightlessness and thoughtlessness for all?

Recently I discovered a thread in my own activities, trying to answer this. Mine has been a winding path full of its own stumbles, working to stay in the “agora.” I’ve sought to strengthen and deepen a public life where rights and thinking might be understood and protected, the import of their absence and destruction vividly sensed. One example was helping place neighbourhood councils in the Los Angeles City Charter, to begin to create foundations for a stronger “polis.” But a couple of other efforts bear on this crucial issue of whether there can be a “polity of literature,” indeed what such a polity might be in general cultural terms.

From 1995 to 2010, I served as director of Beyond Baroque, a poetry, literary, and arts center near Venice beach in Los Angeles. Occupying an old Spanish-style former city hall, we curated and hosted several thousand cultural gatherings, primarily in poetry, but also in other areas, from film and journalism to music experiment and theatrical spectacles, inside or on the lawn, joining other organizations to put on citywide festivals grounding poetry in neighborhoods and their dialogue. We built up the center’s archive of those we featured and began a collection of self-published and small press zines and chapbooks. This included permanent public artworks featuring texts from poets in the local area. I began an imprint for the center, Beyond Baroque Books, editing, designing, and printing works very much on this matter of accounts and those making them.

My goal at Beyond Baroque was to stitch together a coherent, multi-directional activity, the different parts of literature and culture feeding each other to build what Vaclav Havel and others in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s called a “parallel polis”—that is, a space for accountable living, apart from the realm of degraded or absent public life. Could we in L.A. create such a refuge, and perhaps even inspire what Havel called (sparking Solidarność in Poland and Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution”) “living in truth”? I believed, as Havel had, that this kind of life—if not exactly transforming the city and country, then at least beginning in one small redoubt, could provide part of the existential foundation suggested first by Socrates—not through philosophy or the academy, as Plato sought, nor outright questioning, as Socrates pursued, but through a public experience of a protected “polity” rooted in a kind of oppositional culture. In the end, society won out and I left exhausted and—I felt—defeated. But I also learned, meanwhile, of other ways to refine an assault on what I came to call, from Solzhenitsyn, the “society of the lie.”

Drawing of a building labelled "Beyond Baroque", and above are the words "Living in Truth."

Thoughtlessness and rightlessness are now expected and ordinary. They besiege us daily, uprooting us into a shifting, ever-moving non-world, that is, a world where reality is “manufactured” and most certainly not ours. Poetry, fiction, the arts, and critique might be organized to enable us to see how much we are all, each of us—when we cannot conceive of each person as crucial, nor of thinking as vital, nor that our experiences must be preserved in the face of the lie and its society—utterly vulnerable to erasure, to what might be called, upending Marx, the withering away of the people.

Havel in his way, and Arendt before him, had charted paths to achieve an answer. Arendt called the problem, in her typically provocative, etymologically-driven style, the erasure of politics. Real politics, she held, was rooted not in systems, parties, societies, officials, or bureaucracies, but in persons coming together in their plurality. Havel added, as I tried to, a crucial cultural dimension, working to replace what disappears in a society of lies, so that a thinking life could, again, be possible. Havel saw the potential of culture to break through the lie; and for me, this provided a bridge to Arendt, enabling us to bring her lessons to bear on a larger, newer problem. What would a culture be when it activates the people’s life and their power of self-government, rather than serving society (what most people mistakenly call “politics”), which is so saturated with falsehood and peril?

After leaving Beyond Baroque, and through productive half-years in the rapidly transforming city of Berlin, I devised, as a kind of answer to this newer question, a method for working in small groups in sites around the city, reading aloud from the works of this thinker so suited to piercing prejudices, or as she called them “pre-judgments”—Hannah Arendt. When read out loud in a group, and led by someone willing to probe and push and demand, the style and nature of Arendt’s writing reveals that inherent plurality on which thinking, rights, and every polity must rest. Such a method discloses the benefit, limits, and difference each of us bring. To practice Arendt’s writing out loud, together, creates friction of all kinds, but not so much between our different vantages. Instead, what we find there reveals the power of assembled and differing vantages, exposing and prying apart the leveling tendencies that Arendt called “the social.” The ensuing newness, conflict, and vividness of plurality indeed suggests a small polis. It offers what Arendt had hoped to title a book she never wrote: an “introduction into politics.” This is a kind of politics few of us have experienced. It arises whenever people convene to discuss what is before them, and so discover the power to govern and act. Crucial to the “working groups” was the table, that metaphor in Arendt for public space.

Anthropomorphized letters sitting around a table that spell out "plurality."

I offered these table working groups in public sites and centers, first in Berlin, then around Europe, and more recently in Southern California. They were publicly announced. I  found in the sessions at least one small, quite extraordinary answer to the lie—building, week after week, the same day each week, a personal, shared experience of coming awake, with, for, and because of others. In addressing a single shared cultural object, a text of Arendt’s, these small assemblies revealed what our plurality was, and how, by gathering face-to-face, to read, re-read, and re-read again the text aloud, we could discover the vital importance of all present. From this, a kind of objectivity, reality, and personal solidarity emerged, born not of concepts, uniformity, or issues, but from our differences. At the same time, we could have an experience of hard thinking to carry anywhere, making our lives more worldly, grounded, and more able to withstand the light of the public, degraded or not.

Lives were changed by the working groups, in many cases spurring journeys participants had been fearful of, launching them on work into the public realm—outside of old institutions that often claim to be the only realms where thinking activity exists today. My earlier work on behalf of literature had taught me a great deal about the power of the oral in poetry, in the act of reading out loud to others. A related truth emerged from doing this with prose. It was possible to find, in reading aloud for others, a kind of literary and cultural “polity.” In coming together this way, we could experience the protecting of experience as a ground of plurality. This was very different from social activity. Poetry read out loud can be transformative; fiction, also read aloud, can strengthen experiences grounded in the time we are part of, and must bear the burden of. With the proper light and sound, all attention could focus solely on what was before us. Superficiality was the enemy.

What I brought to this first cultural effort was informed not only by Arendt and Havel, but also, in time, others: the poet and brilliant essayist Joseph Brodsky; the polymathic poet and thinker Charles Olson; and more. In trying to stir the construction of a parallel realm, I was led by those I sought to bring into the public realm: authors I edited and published that in turn influenced me deeply, like the ground-breaking poet and critic Ammiel Alcalay and artist/writer/dancer Simone Forti, and many others. This cultural construction of objects—books—meant editing and designing them for the thematic and aesthetic specificity of their accounts, pulling aesthetic form and political gesture together. Lasting, well-made objects were crucial—books, as concrete objects to outlast and inform temporary assemblies and private reflection.

Drawing that reads, "The Portable Polis," with the word polis driving on wheels.

My second cultural effort, in the Berlin working groups, culminated in summer, 2017, in what I called, this time directly invoking Arendt, The Portable Polis. I’d learned from difficulties running an institution—with all its invisible social battles, through two protracted lease fights and the jockeying of varied factions and individuals—that while one could build a polity of sorts with literature and the arts, sparking resistance to society was far too much to ask. Personal solidarity was rare, careerism and atomization ingrained. The superficiality of society blew in on us at every turn. Through a longstanding interest in Arendt, in Berlin I unwittingly discovered working more fully through, with, and from individuals in small, temporary gatherings. The reading of Arendt’s texts by these different voices could create a shared experience of discovering each other—not as creators for an audience, nor as an audience for creators and created things, but as contributors to a vivid, living, breathing sense of the actual, rather than the virtual, world.

By going to Berlin, where people had, for a while, the time and interest to sit for an afternoon engaging in the hard work of Arendt’s texts, by moving about and gathering, I felt the freedom to spur thinking and reflection directly, one person at a time, teaching friction and plurality in equal measure. Where before we had met at whatever sites I could find, in The Portable Polis, we met at sites that embodied the specific activities Arendt addressed, reading her texts on those activities as matters at hand, aloud. What looked like “concepts” could be seen instead as principles, that is, springs for activity. The method brought the awareness of all there to a high pitch. It was slow, arduous work, reading barely three pages a session. But by the end of each, minds were on fire, our presence to each other powerful. This effect, so crucial to the process, was a result of drawing out each person, and especially the shy ones. This process, in embryo, pointed to that thing Arendt held so crucial to action and interruption of the automatic: disclosure of who we are, rather than what.

Over a number of years the initial Berlin working groups developed a dedicated and gradually shifting core of three to five people working in varied professions, including graduate students in philosophy, retirees, and artists. For The Portable Polis, we announced the eleven summer sessions more widely, kept them free, like all my working groups, and posted online an interactive map marking sites and texts. People could find us easily. But word had also gotten out. Building on the earlier working groups by adding a diversity of sites and texts, sponsorship by a major institution, and more publicity, The Portable Polis attracted professional and non-professional members of the public from around Germany and abroad—occasional Arendt scholars, people passing through Berlin from France, Brazil, Croatia, Iceland, Russia, America, Britain, China, and elsewhere, and artists from around the city and the world. Young activists came, as well as those who had simply heard from a friend or colleague about the work we were doing. As before, it was unnecessary to have experience in philosophy or in Arendt. The world around us, between us, and before us was what mattered. One session, in a public garden, had a live, bee-keeping seminar going on behind us, smoke periodically wafting amidst us; another, in refugee housing, had those working with the refugees joining us to read Arendt’s sobering descriptions of being uprooted from friends, family, traditions, and world. Each person who came lent their experience and their voice to examining Arendt’s words—alongside the words and felt presence from each of us and all that was around us.

The city could come alive in a stroll across history and place, rights and rightlessness, thinking and thoughtlessness, memory and forgetting.

The concluding gathering, as endings ought, exemplified the project. Our reading and discussion focused on the German Enlightenment thinker and playwright Gotthold Lessing, and a central text on him by Arendt, “Humanity in Dark Times”—from her pivotal book of positive exemplars, Men in Dark Times. We began one glorious summer weekend day walking from Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial—which Wolfgang Thierse, president of Germany’s parliament, called a place to grasp “what loneliness, powerlessness and despair mean”—to the old, seemingly forgotten statue of Lessing I’d discovered nearby in Tiergarten Park. The city could come alive in a stroll across history and place, rights and rightlessness, thinking and thoughtlessness, memory and forgetting. The statue was not noted on any tourist, cultural, or city map.

Where the first working groups when I arrived in Berlin (crucially, launched at the now-ousted cultural site General Public) focused on Arendt’s texts about her dear friends Walter Benjamin and Karl Jaspers, this last series of sessions consummated what I had devised, by then, as a kind of dérive of thinking across the city. Each session meant experiencing a kind of grounded if temporary polis, or polity, however small, provisional, and transient, yet pure in principle, the same day each week over eleven weeks, in varied human and urban situations. To be situated was everything. The kaleidoscope of voices and sites generated the thrill of a shared enterprise for what Karl Jaspers, a crucial interlocutor for Arendt, so beautifully called the “venture into the public realm.”

Beyond Baroque events, years before, had been cheap and open to all. People gathered on evenings each week in our intimate black-box theater, hushed and attentive to whatever works poets, writers, artists, and others brought. The Portable Polis, building on my accumulated experiences in Berlin, pursued a different approach. The sites included a community co-op cafe, a private apartment, an employment center, the aforementioned refugee housing and public garden, an art space and publishing site called Archive, a bookstore, an activist shack in a mostly Turkish housing complex, and the home site of our sponsor, ZK/U (the Center for Art and Urbanistics). My goal was to spur an exchange not of concepts or mastery, but of that experienced awareness in and awakeness to each of us gathered, thinking the activities and world for each other.

My first effort, primarily rooted in poetry, and the second, primarily rooted in thinking, rested firmly on culture, pushing our notion of culture further. The first effort sought to sustain and protect a regular activity strong enough to address the world, not as propaganda or ruling fictions say it is, but as it actually is for all coming together. Poetry played the crucial part, as it did for Arendt, who, with her vast reserve of memorized poems, uncovered the importance of “poetic thinking”—an insight drawn from Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, and others. Beyond Baroque became the site of such poetic thinking. The working groups in Berlin were dedicated more to reflexive thinking, and the potential latent within that.

A man and a woman stand in an area labelled "present thinking", with the word "PAST" to the left and "FUTURE" to the right.

Poetic thinking and reflexive thinking are vital, each in their own way, and can provide the beginnings of a resistant polity, one that is certainly cultural, that can be about objectivity and reality, that may indeed be “literary,” and, for me, can provide an experience of breaking free of the plague of thoughtlessness and rightlessness. In Arendt’s framing, the thinking activity takes place between what Kafka called, in a poetic fable she cited, “winds” bearing down on us from the past and future. We all exist between these winds, and, should we somehow be able to hold ourselves upright by their opposition, we would not then be blown over by either. Being upright in the present—that is, not being blown over by past or futurewas, for Arendt, “thinking.” What has become clear, in retrospect, is that during earlier years at Beyond Baroque, curating and hosting endless nights of poets and fiction writers reading aloud in our sanctuary, I had gained a crucial sense of the uniqueness of poetry, literature, and culture for this task. The trials of directing and protecting a dedicated space pointed to the limits in such an enterprise, even while many benefitted. My personal efforts were resisted by the system, ferociously, and support was meager and always desperate. But those years also taught me about what I realized was the true ground battle. This informed my turn to smaller groups of individuals moving around a non-American city, one where English was also spoken, to experience ourselves in the shared struggle to think and be, protecting each other from forces outwitting us by the hour.

How might we learn such capacities, with, through, and because of others? Can we build polities where self-governing power is precipitated by cultural things? Most of all, can we condition ourselves against what Arendt called “evil doing,” not as a demonic or Satanic thing, but as banal—something that, by being banal, spreads easily, from inside and from outside of us, destroying us through its ravenous superficiality? While what people create when they gather around poetry and literature might be fiction or even the “lies” writers can tell, the polity this creates can provide refuge, and through a different politics than we know, one that is neither fiction nor a lie. Being together can be constructed to preserve our capacity to remember, reflect, experience, and imagine, not alone, but awake, together. These activities begin in private, where we can write and read, experiencing and re-experiencing the depths of things, unobstructed, quietly. In private, our minds are free to roam, to feel, to remember, to think, and to ask questions of ourselves that we can then bring to the public realm. Brought into public, for each other, in a space safe for that, I believe, such activities can resist the fictions and lies of political rule. In turn, public experiences can be brought back to safety in private, deepening and strengthening a kind of wall against the forces of society. Such experiences might even point to and preserve the possibility of what longtime Detroit activist Maureen Taylor has called quite precisely “a different kind of world.” Not another world, but a different way this world might be—not a non-world, but a web of polities where rights and thinking become more secure and clear. The question of the crucial role of the state in this must be left in abeyance for this discussion, but one discovery is absolutely clear: we ourselves can, when together, protect fundamental things for each other, and this, in the end, comes first.

Ocean Vuong, a young Vietnamese-American poet and novelist, made a deceptively simple observation in the LA Times last spring: “One of the greatest hopes as an artist is to create a town square where people get together to talk about this book and they talk about the questions and they bring their own life to it…” To this I add an observation by Arendt herself, reflecting on the work of Brecht, a difficult man Arendt may or may not have met, but who had become a treasured chess partner to her husband, the Berliner, Heinrich Blücher. Profiling Brecht in Men in Dark Times, Arendt points to the foremost embodiment of the hard thinking individual capable of spurring that difficult thing Arendt called “judgment,” which is necessary to sustain a polity firm enough to arrest thoughtlessness and rightlessness:

This, then, was the man: gifted with a penetrating, non-theoretical, non-contemplative intelligence that went to the heart of the matter, silent and unwilling to show himself, remote and probably also shy, at any rate not much interested in himself but incredibly curious…and first and foremost a poet—that is, someone who must say the unsayable, who must not remain silent on occasions when all are silent, and who must therefore be careful not to talk too much about things that all talk about.

Signup for the ArtsEverywhere newsletter

icon-angle icon-bars icon-times