Arendt and Literature (GSA Conference 2022, Houston)
In Life of the Mind, posthumously published by Mary McCarthy in 1977, Hannah Arendt uses one of Gertrude Stein's most famous lines to show how language operates between thought and sensual experience, as a communicative tool that is necessary for intersubjective understanding and yet always already insufficient, belated and lacking. Sensual experiences cannot, she argues, “be adequately described in words… Something smells like a rose, tastes like pea soup, feels like velvet, that is as far as we can go. ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’” (LoM, 119). The promise of poetic language lies in how it differs from argumentative thought, but it remains for the same reason a vital resource for the latter.
It is not uncommon for Arendt to make use of poetry, or other literary texts in her writing. Indeed, it is one of the defining characteristics of her theory to do so. From her earliest readings of Rilke, to her essays on Kafka, Brecht, Benjamin, Sarraute, Jarrell, and others, Arendt eagerly read literature throughout her work and life. Moreover, literary forms such as parable and metaphor became increasingly central to her writing practice and theory, as most evident in Life of the Mind. But what does the encounter with literary language promise for Arendt’s theory? The role of literature for her work has not yet been comprehensively studied.
Hence, this panel is dedicated to exploring Arendt’s poetics. How can we characterize her poetics, in the sense of both her explicit claims about the nature of literary language and its production, and the productive principles that underlie her own writing? We invite abstracts for papers discussing questions such as: What is her notion of literature, and what place does literature have in her overall oeuvre? What is her practice of reading – how does she interpret, if one can describe her work that way? How does Arendt stand with respect to different national literary traditions, and to national literature in general? How do Arendt’s poetics relate to her politics, and what is the role of literature in her attempt at founding a more worldly political tradition? How do Arendt’s poetics compare to more recent formulations of political aesthetics in e.g. Rancière? What can we – as academic and casual readers – learn from Arendt? How can her approach to literature inform, nuance, or correct conventional and critical methods of reading within and outside literary studies?